COVID-19 in Philly: City Council members to introduce emergency housing package

    (Photo via The Philadelphia Tribune)

    By Ayana Jones

    PHILADELPHIA — City Council members Kendra Brooks, Jamie Gauthier and Helen Gym plan to introduce a package of bills aimed at keeping renters in their homes as the coronavirus pandemic takes an economic toll.

    “As city council members, we don’t have the authority to cancel rent or to provide mortgage relief to landlords at the local level and so the best thing that we can do is to give renters resources that they might not otherwise have in negotiations with their landlord — time and breathing room to get back on their feet without the threat of eviction looming over them,” said Gauthier, who is introducing two bills.

    The total package — called the Emergency Housing Protection Act — is composed of six bills and one resolution. The council members plan to introduce it during the council meeting on Friday.

    Gauthier’s first bill would enable renters to enter a payment plan with their landlord lasting up to 12 months if they lost their job or had their hours reduced due to the coronavirus crisis. The bill would apply to renters who have had the virus, are caring for someone with COVID-19 or were forced to quarantine and were unable to make rent as scheduled.

    “During the 12-month repayment window, this bill stipulates that landlords must inform tenants of the right to enter a repayment plan at least 60 days before filing for eviction for nonpayment of back rent,” Gauthier said.

    “What we are ultimately trying to do is to provide renters and landlords with an opportunity to settle repayment issues in a way that allows people to remain in their homes without the constant fear of what tomorrow might bring.”

    Her second bill allows renters who are illegally locked out to take legal action against their landlord. Gauthier says this bill offers expanded enforcement against landlords who attempt to evict their tenants without following the appropriate legal process. Affected renters would be able to file with the Fair Housing Commission or Court of Common Pleas, terminate their remaining leases without penalties and recover damages.

    Gym’s two bills establish an eviction diversion program and prevent evictions during the pandemic and for two months after the emergency order is lifted.

    “What we know is that we see almost 18,000 evictions through tenant court any given year,” she said.

    “We simply cannot go back to the way that things were, especially as we stage a reopening of our economy. A diversion program will ensure that landlords avoid the time and expense of litigation, ensure that families stay housed and ensure that eviction is truly a means of last resort.”

    The proposed initiative is modeled after Philadelphia’s Mortgage Foreclosure Program that has prevented 11,000 homes from being placed in foreclosure.

    The lawmakers are also introducing a resolution calling for a federal rescue effort prioritizing rent and mortgage relief.

    “We are asking that the City of Philadelphia, which may have allocated up to $7 million for rent subsidies, continues with that money and expands it with any federal relief money so that it goes toward those who are facing eviction,” Gym said.

    “We want to make clear that the city budget — while grim — cannot afford to not invest in anti-eviction prevention.”

    Brooks’ bills prohibit landlords from increasing rents during the pandemic and for a year afterwards and from charging late fees during the pandemic and for two months afterwards.

    “These basic renters’ protections are not only responsible but sorely needed,” she said.

    “There has been ample relief for homeowners and landlords at the federal level but we’ve seen nothing for renters. Families are suffering. Massive homelessness and debt will be counterproductive to our city’s recovery from the COVID-19 virus. This legislation will allow our city to rebuild itself.”

    The proposed legislative package was hailed by Aryi Pebbles, a West Philadelphia resident and small business owner who faces the possibility of being evicted.

    Pebbles was stable until the pandemic hit in March and her daughter lost her job. They informed their landlord that they wouldn’t be able to pay the rent until April. Their landlord refused to reason with them and ended up shutting off the water, cooking gas, electricity and heat.

    “My daughter is still out of work and she has yet to be approved for unemployment,” Pebbles said.

    “If we had had these bills earlier this month, I would be able to fine my landlord on an illegal lockout. I wouldn’t have had to worry about being evicted. My landlord and I could have went through the diversion program. My daughter and I could have started a 12-month repayment program and we wouldn’t have to worry about rent increases in the next couple of months.”

    Rachel Garland, managing attorney at Community Legal Services’ Housing Unit, said that the city must take action now to assist renters. She said the low-income renters CLS serves through the Philadelphia Eviction Project have been hard hit by the pandemic — both economically and health-wise.

    “Low-income renters — particularly Black renters, particularly female heads of households — are being forced to risk their lives for the sake of their livelihoods and it’s these same renters that are most at risk for eminent eviction when the courts reopen,” Garland said.

    “If we don’t act now, an avalanche of evictions will further destabilize lower-income communities and ultimately our city — leading to families doubling up, an influx of families into the already stressed shelter system, a possible second spike in infections and greater need for hospitals as eviction leads to another wave of the virus and another need to shut down our economy.”

    Ayana Jones is a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared