The Philadelphia Inquirer: Michaelle Bond - July 2, 2020
Philadelphia’s landlord-tenant court, which has been closed since mid-March to help slow the spread of the coronavirus, was scheduled to reopen Monday.
But the court will remain closed to nonemergency business at least through Sept. 2 because of the increasing number of new infections in the city and “limitations in accessing court facilities,” according to a district court order issued Thursday. The order averts what tenant advocates expected would be a disaster of confused renters unaware of new pandemic-related protections and renters who would automatically lose their cases by not showing up to court out of fear of contracting COVID-19.
But the order came the day before a long holiday weekend that ends Monday, when four dozen hearings were scheduled to be held. Advocates worry that tenants won’t get the news of the closed court and show up unnecessarily.
Mayor Jim Kenney on Wednesday signed a package of City Council bills that extends the eviction moratorium in Philadelphia through Aug. 31 and otherwise makes allowances for tenants during the pandemic.
City officials and advocates say mass evictions could follow the end of the moratorium because tenants continue to struggle with lost wages in the economic fallout of the pandemic. A surge in people who are homeless would threaten public health and strain resources already pulled tight by a projected $749 million revenue shortfall in the city budget.
Typically, landlords disproportionately evict mothers and their children and Black people, a community at higher than average risk of complications from COVID-19. Daily case counts are trending up in the city.
“Stable housing remains our strongest and most reliable means of prevention,” said Rachel Garland, a managing attorney in the housing unit at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia.
Rental assistance programs are just now ramping up, and tenants need time to access that aid to pay their landlords, advocates said. Property owners can then avoid vacancies they may have trouble filling. “It doesn’t benefit either tenants or landlords right now to go forward with evictions,” Garland said.
But some landlords disagree. Those with pending evictions have been frustrated by the court delays and want to be able to evict tenants for nonpayment as quickly as possible to try to turn over units and bring in revenue. A lot of landlords don’t want to take money through city and state rental assistance programs because of the strings attached, including bans on evictions for months after assistance ends.
Challenges Facing the Court
Roughly 1,800 landlord-tenant cases had been scheduled for March before most were rescheduled for July and August. The court planned to attempt to get through the backlog by cutting down to 48 cases a day, scheduled six at a time in 45-minute increments to prevent a crowded courtroom. In a typical day before the pandemic, the court scheduled more than three times as many cases.
The court would have required face masks, provided hand sanitizer throughout the building, and encouraged anyone who felt unwell to leave. The court planned to install partitions where social distancing was not possible.
Many tenants have to take several forms of transportation to get to Center City. Those concerned about contracting COVID-19 on public transportation or at court — especially people in vulnerable populations or with vulnerable family members — might not have attended their hearings. Community Legal Services estimated that more than half of tenants wouldn’t have come to court because of the coronavirus, up from the typical 30% to 40%. Those who don’t show up lose their cases.
“It’s just not practical to open within a global health emergency,” Garland said.
Community Legal Services was advising tenants who did not feel safe going in person to call the court to ask for “reasonable accommodations,” such as a continuance of a case or the ability to participate by phone or video call.
The court planned to temporarily suspend the “lawyer of the day” program that provides free representation to low-income tenants and keep out “courtroom navigators,” advocates at the Philadelphia Eviction Prevention Project who guide tenants, until the court could ensure that the programs could continue safely. Tenant advocates had planned to set up on the sidewalk outside municipal court to distribute information about tenant protections and rental assistance programs.
Phil Lord, executive director of the Tenant Union Representative Network, said that as coronavirus cases rise, limiting the number of hearings would not have been enough to ensure safety.
“It is less risky than it would be routinely. The question is, is it safe? And that should be the standard,” he said. “The pandemic has not changed. There’s no vaccine.”
The Confusion of Reopening
Days before landlord-tenant court was to reopen Monday, advocates were scrambling to figure out how best to advise tenants. Confused renters have been calling tenant hotlines for clarity that advocates could not always provide, given the speed with which information has changed.
Lord, of the Tenant Union Representative Network, said the uncertainty was “a serious undermining of due process” and left people guessing about their safety and rights.
“You should be clear with people who are about to lose their homes,” he said.
Many landlords, too, don’t understand their responsibilities under new federal, state, and local protections for tenants, Garland of Community Legal Services said.
The Eviction Moratorium
The closure of landlord-tenant court worked in tandem with the eviction moratorium, which has kept Pennsylvanians who lost income because of the coronavirus in their homes. The soonest an eviction can happen is 21 days after a court judgment.
On Monday, the landlord association HAPCO Philadelphia plans to file a challenge in federal court to the bills City Council passed to extend the eviction moratorium, waive rent fees, create an eviction diversion program, give tenants nine months to pay back rent, and allow tenants who have been illegally locked out of their homes to recover damages.
Victor Pinckney, a vice president at HAPCO, had been looking forward to the court’s reopening and had faith in the court’s safety precautions inside.
“I’ve got several tenants I know have money that have not paid rent,” he said. One of his tenants has not paid since February, before state and city officials closed businesses to slow the spread of the coronavirus and before the mass layoffs that followed. He said he had a court hearing with the tenant scheduled for July 14 that will now be rescheduled.
Even if court had reopened Monday, the case backlog and court rules limiting the number of hearings a day would have meant there was “a good chance” he wouldn’t have reclaimed his units until November or December and wouldn’t have been able to collect rent until he could lease units again in January or February, Pinckney said.
He said one HAPCO member who owns several properties told him one of his tenants has not been paying rent but has several cars and bought a new one. The property owner feels stuck without the option to evict.
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