HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — A federal freeze on most evictions enacted last year is scheduled to expire Saturday, after President Joe Biden’s administration extended the original date by a month. The moratorium, put in place by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in September, was the only tool keeping millions of tenants in their homes. Many of them lost jobs during the coronavirus pandemic and had fallen months behind on their rent.
Landlords successfully challenged the order in court, arguing they also had bills to pay. They pointed out that tenants could access nearly $47 billion in federal money set aside to help pay rents and related expenses.
Advocates for tenants said the distribution of the money had been slow and that more time was needed to distribute it and repay landlords. Without an extension, they feared a spike in evictions and lawsuits seeking to boot out tenants who were behind on their rent.
Even with the delay, roughly 3.6 million people in the U.S. as of July 5 said they face eviction in the next two months, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey. The survey measures the social and economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic every two weeks through online responses from a representative sample of U.S. households.
Here’s the situation in Pennsylvania:
WHAT’S THE STATUS OF EVICTION MORATORIUMS IN THE STATE?
Pennsylvania’s court-ordered housing eviction moratorium ended in August 2020, but there also have been local moratoriums in at least two cities. In Philadelphia, an order that requires landlords to go through the Philadelphia Eviction Diversion Program before seeking a court eviction for nonpayment of rent has been extended until the end of August. In Harrisburg, a citywide eviction moratorium — which also extended to rooming houses — expired in mid-June. In January, the state Supreme Court modified rules for landlords, giving them more time to seek repossession of their properties.
WHAT’S BEING DONE TO HELP PEOPLE FACING EVICTION?
In January, Pennsylvania used its share of the federal pandemic housing relief money to set up the Emergency Rental Assistance Program, which helps with rent, overdue rent, utilities and other housing-related costs linked to COVID-19. The program began in March.
The state Human Services Department says $847 million in federal pandemic aid is designated to help renters and landlords in Pennsylvania. Through June, $133 million has gone to more than 30,500 Pennsylvania households.
Another $671 million in federal rental aid is in the pipeline, and a Human Services spokesperson said this week the agency is developing a distribution formula to get that money to counties.
Eligible applicants can get up to 18 months of help for past-due or future rent or utility costs.
Matthew Rich, a tenants’ lawyer for MidPenn Legal Services in Harrisburg, said Dauphin County has paid out more than $3 million in rental support to slightly more than 570 applicants since March 1, but still has nearly 2,100 applications pending. He said about $48,000 of that total went toward overdue electric bills.
HOW ARE THE COURTS HANDLING EVICTION HEARINGS?
Lawyers say procedures and practices have varied across the state, in some cases from courtroom to courtroom within a county. Since early this year, courts have generally been handling eviction cases but not issuing final eviction orders in cases of nonpayment of rent — often leaving landlords unauthorized to take possession of their properties and change locks.
Community Legal Services says Philadelphia's landlord-tenant officer is currently locking out about 100 tenants a week, with a backlog of about 900 as of July 1. In the first weeks, all have been cases that were heard before the pandemic. Community Legal Services says the great majority didn't realize they were being locked out and many have pending applications for rental assistance.
HOW AFFORDABLE IS HOUSING IN THE STATE’S MAJOR RENTAL MARKETS?
Experts say there is a shortage of quality, affordable housing in Pennsylvania, with a significant percentage of renters paying 30% to 50% of their gross income on rent.
In the state's large cities, rents for a two-bedroom apartment have gone up over the past year. In the region that includes Philadelphia, such rents rose about 3.2% in the year ending in June, for a median rent of about $1,800, according to Realtor.com. Pittsburgh rent for a two-bedroom apartment went up by 10.3% over the past year, to about $1,500, the site reported.
Philadelphia is affordable compared to other big cities, but it's the poorest of the nation's 10 largest cities, making its housing less affordable for its residents. Rich said affordable rental units can often be of lower quality.
“If you find a place that's affordable, it's usually affordable because there are problems with the property which make it affordable,” Rich said.
ARE EVICTIONS EXPECTED TO CREATE A SURGE IN HOMELESSNESS?
A recent U.S. Census Bureau study suggests more than 186,000 Pennsylvanians are somewhat likely or very likely to lose their homes to eviction over the coming two months. Many people involved with tenants and landlords fear there will be a spike in homelessness.
“And we do have a housing shortage — there's no two ways about it," said Rita Dallago with the Pennsylvania Residential Owners Association in Camp Hill. "And this housing shortage is going to get worse before it gets better.”