The Lead

Pa. Sen. Saval, Gov. Wolf, call on Pa. Supreme Court to halt evictions

By: - August 27, 2021 4:54 pm

A Pittsburgh resident facing eviction holds up a sign during a rally organized by the Pittsburgh chapter of the United Neighborhood Defense Movement in February 2021 (Image via Pittsburgh City Paper).

A progressive, first-term state senator has called for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to halt evictions in the commonwealth, after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a federal moratorium Thursday evening on landlords removing tenants from their homes during the pandemic.

State Sen. Nikil Saval, D-Philadelphia, said in a statement Friday afternoon 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 earlier this month 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, 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.

In it’s 6-3 ruling on Thursday night, the high court  struck down a federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ban on evictions that has been in place for most of the last year-and-a-half.

In an unsigned ruling, the majority wrote that the agency’s stated authority came from “a decades-old statute that authorizes it to implement measures like fumigation and pest extermination.”

“It strains credulity to believe that this statute grants the CDC the sweeping authority that it asserts,” the decision said.

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.

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.