City courts' eviction ban remains despite Supreme Court's action

While the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the federal eviction moratorium, the city courts’ eviction moratorium for some tenants will remain in place along with other city-backed protections for renters.

First Judicial District spokesman Martin O’Rourke said last week that the now-defunct federal moratorium has “nothing to do with our order” because the city courts draw authority from the state legislature and state Supreme Court.The city courts issued an order earlier this month that delays certain evictions through Oct. 3. That order is based on the latest U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s eviction moratorium, which the Supreme Court struck down last Thursday.

A second order — also issued in August, but which omits mention of the CDC’s order — delays eviction “lockouts” for some tenants until their rental assistance program applications have been processed, among other things.

In a majority opinion, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that the CDC exceeded its authority when it reinstated an eviction moratorium this month.

The city has yet to review 32,400 emergency rental and utility assistance program applications as of Friday, according to the city’s online dashboard. The city has received nearly 52,800 applications during the current phase of the program, of which 13,614 have been approved.

The city has given out more than $158 million through the rental and utility assistance program to more than 28,300 households since May 2020, according to the city’s dashboard.

The high court’s decision does not derail the city’s Eviction Diversion Program or other tenant protections put in place in Philadelphia, according to the city’s website.

Tenants who apply for the city’s Eviction Diversion program can continue to halt their evictions and require landlords to take part in mediation with a housing counselor to resolve non-payments of rent and other issues.

Landlords seeking to evict tenants must first apply for rental assistance and participate in the Eviction Diversion Program. After 45 days, if their issues are not resolved, a landlord can begin the eviction process through the courts.

The city will no longer allow tenants and landlords who have received funds through Phase 4 of the rental assistance program to apply for a second round, according to the city’s website.

A city law also gives tenants additional protections, including waivers for late fees.

City Councilmember Helen Gym said the high court’s decision to strike down the federal eviction moratorium was “shameful” and called on Congress to reinstate the moratorium.

“Philadelphia’s municipal court order mandating the use of eviction diversion and rent assistance will remain intact,” Gym said. “The Supreme Court’s ruling increases the urgency for the rest of the country to follow Philadelphia’s lead in building alternatives to eviction that keep communities safe and stable.”

Meanwhile, a progressive, first-term state senator has called for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to halt evictions in the entire state, after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the federal moratorium.

State Sen. Nikil Saval, D-Philadelphia, said in a statement that replacing the federal moratorium with state-level protections was needed to save lives amid rising COVID cases.

“In a nation as wealthy as ours, in which the essential right to housing is commodified as a toy for the wealthy elite, there can be no mistake: this decision places the property of those who have more above the very lives of those who have less,” Saval said in a statement, soon echoed by Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf.

Congress authorized $46.5 billion in rental aid for people struggling to make ends meet, to cover both current and past due payments.

But states have struggled to get that money in the hands of tenants. Just $1.7 billion — about 3 and-a-half percent — of the money has been distributed, according to the New York Times.

Even when the money is allocated, landlords have sometimes rejected the cash and opted to evict tenants instead.

Pennsylvania has followed this trend. The state has received $564 million in rental aid. Four out of five of those dollars still have not been spent.

Allowing eviction to happen with that money unspent, Saval said, was “senseless.” He called for the high court to block evictions until the assistance has all been distributed to “the tenants and landlords who desperately need them.”

Saval has also proposed reforming how the state spends its rental assistance funds by requiring landlords to seek back rent from the federal sources before evicting a tenant.

The bill would also mandate courts prevent evictions for 60 days of protection after a renter applies for rental assistance to either be approved or denied.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court issued a similar order allowing Bucks County to pause evictions in such a fashion earlier this month.

Saval’s bill is not yet written, and it would fall to the Republican-controlled General Assembly to pass it.

In a tweet, Governer Wolf backed Saval’s proposed fixes to the rental assistance program, and co-signed the request for state Supreme Court action.

“It’s critical that we do everything in our power to keep [Pennsylvanians] safely housed,” Wolf said.

A spokesperson for the high court declined to comment. A spokesperson for Wolf did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

Eviction filings have begun to rise nationally in recent weeks, according to Princeton University’s Eviction Lab. That includes 100 new eviction filings in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia within the last week.

Saval’s legal ask isn’t without merit, Bruce Ledewitz, a Duquesne University law professor and expert on the Pennsylvania constitution, told the Capital-Star.

The Pennsylvania constitution gives the state Supreme Court “the power to prescribe general rules governing practice, procedure and the conduct of all courts,” Ledewitz, a Capital-Star opinion contributor, noted.

While the court couldn’t create a law out of whole cloth banning eviction, eviction is a judicial act, he added.

So, the court could pause eviction hearings  across the state — arguing, for instance, that it was dangerous to jam courtrooms as the COVID variant spreads — and effectively prevent evictions.

“Because eviction is a judicial remedy, having a temporary stay is within their procedural powers,” Ledewitz said. “That would not be a laughable argument.”

The state Supreme Court high court ordered courtrooms to close for the first month-and-a half of the pandemic, effectively blocking evictions throughout April of 2020. Wolf then used his emergency powers to continue that ban until August 2020. It was also upheld by the state’s justices.

However, Wolf has since largely been stripped of his emergency powers by two constitutional amendments approved by the voters in May.

At risk of eviction? Call the Philly Tenant Hotline at 267-443-2500 or visit here.

From The Philadelphia Tribune and the Pennsylvania Capitol-Star