Eviction-protection legislation stalls in Philly City Council committee

(Getty Images photo)

By Michael D’Onofrio

PHILADELPHIA — A City Council committee on Friday punted a bundle of tenant protection bills for renters facing financial hardships due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.

After the all-day hearing held via video conference, council members voted to take no action on six bills that would halt evictions through Aug. 31; create an eviction diversion program; and provide short-term rent control extending for nine months beyond the end of August to prevent landlords from raising rents for some tenants, among other things.

Councilwoman Jamie Gauthier, among the primary sponsors of the bills and chairwoman of the Committee on Housing, Neighborhood Development and The Homeless, said other council members pushed to hold the bills in order to build more support for the legislation.

“We are close,” said Gauthier about whether the bills had a majority of support on the eight-member committee.

Asked whether there were enough votes on the full City Council to pass the bills, Gauthier hedged, saying, “I don’t think that call can be made right now.”

Leading up to the hearing, the committee amended the bills. Gauthier did not rule out more amendments to the legislation — “I’m not sure.”

The hearing will resume at 9:30 a.m. on June 5.

The bills carried the support of the Kenney administration and leaders in the Black clergy, while the building industry has fought them.

The Rev. Robert Collier, president of the Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity, said the package of bills would protect Philadelphia’s large population of poor and working-poor.

“Without help in the housing situation, many of our neighbors would be homeless,” he said.

Rue Landau, executive director of the city’s Fair Housing Commission and Kenney administration surrogate, agreed with Collier, saying the legislation would get “ahead of what likely could be a mass eviction crisis in Philadelphia.”

The pandemic has created a devastating financial hardship for many residents but has taken the greatest toll on people of color and exacerbated the long-time structural and systematic inequalities targeting them, said Landau, who also is the executive director of the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations.

The legislation also would waive rental fees, establish a process for tenants to repay unpaid rent, and provide relief for illegally locked out tenants.

But the legislation left out protections for small landlords, Landau said. She called on the council to extend temporary rent stabilization, waivers for fees and payment plan protections to those landlords.

Leaders in the building industry said the protections for renters would hurt landlords across the city.

David Feldman, executive director of the building lobbying group Development Workshop, pushed against the rent-control bill, saying landlords would be unable to cover anticipated increases in costs to maintain their properties without raising rent.

“While we understand that housing hotlines are receiving calls about extreme fees and rent increases from unscrupulous landlords, these are a small fraction of 1% of the approximately 300,000 rental units in Philadelphia,” Feldman said.

Gary Jonas, vice president of the Business Industry Association of Philadelphia, also took aim at the proposals for rent control and the establishment of payment plans for tenants, saying they were “problematic” and would ultimately hurt landlords and the housing industry.

“We think it’s more important to incentivize the private market to fill these gaps that are out there and do more investment in the city which will create more jobs and keep the community more stable,” Jonas said.

Amendments to the legislation included setting the emergency period for qualifying for the protections through Aug. 31; limiting the moratorium on evictions to the same date; and shaving three months off the ban on raising rents.

Tenants applying for the programs must provide a written and signed statement detailing their hardships due to the pandemic, and in some cases include documentation.

Under the legislation, a landlord could seek to evict a tenant if the renter fails to participate in a requested repayment conference within 45 days.

The legislation would give Philadelphia renters weeks of additional eviction protections beyond those Gov. Tom Wolf put in place through July 10. There is no rent control in Philadelphia or the state.

Before the pandemic struck Philadelphia in March, an estimated 300,000 residents were considered cost-burdened, meaning they spend at least a third of their income on monthly rent, and the city had the fourth highest eviction rate among U.S. cities, Gauthier said.

Michael D’Onofrio is a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared