Pennsylvanians who have fallen behind on rent may be shielded from eviction once again, this time under a new federal order that aims to keep them in their homes through the end of 2020.
Housing attorneys say they’re still analyzing the details of a new order the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued unexpectedly late Tuesday evening, which appears to shield most renters from new eviction claims if they’ve lost jobs or income.
The order may not take effect until Friday, experts say. But it will remain in place, nationwide, through Dec. 31.
The new protections came as welcome news to housing advocates in Pennsylvania, who predicted that cash-strapped landlords would rush to the courts after a moratorium imposed by Gov. Tom Wolf expired Monday.
“Allowing evictions to proceed was a potentially disastrous situation for the Commonwealth, especially as children are returning to school,” Phyllis Chamberlain, executive director of the Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania, said in a written statement Wednesday.
Chamberlain pointed out that it won’t fix Pennsylvania’s brewing housing crisis. That job lies with the General Assembly, she said, which this summer passed a rent assistance program that failed to substantively help landlords or tenants.
But she said the federal action could go a long way to help Pennsylvania renters, including the nearly 400,000 tenants who were behind on rent this summer. Here’s what we know so far.
The order is targeted to help tenants who lost jobs or income due to COVID-19
The CDC order, which invokes a federal public health emergency law, applies nationwide through the end of 2020. It’s narrowly crafted to prevent new evictions for non-payment of rent.
In order to qualify, a tenant must:
- Expect to make than $99,000 (that’s raised to $198,000 for couples who file taxes jointly), or have received an economic stimulus checks from the IRS this year.
- Be unable to pay rent “due to income loss or extraordinary out-of-pocket medical expenses.”
- Have nowhere else to go if they get evicted. That means they might experience homelessness, or be forced to move in with friends and family, if they lose their home.
- Commit to try to make “timely partial payments” of rent, as much as their budget will allow.
Here’s what it won’t do: protect homeowners by halting foreclosures, as Pennsylvania’s state-level bans did from March until September.
Nor does it shield tenants who face evictions for non-financial reasons, such as damaging property or violating other terms of their lease.
The order also doesn’t relieve tenants of their rent obligations. They’ll ultimately have to pay back what they owe landlords, but Pennsylvania advocates hope this order will give them more time to get help from a state assistance program.
Tenants have to do some paperwork
Tenants who want to be covered by the new protections have to sign a declaration and submit it to their landlord.
That document requires them to pledge, under threat of perjury, that they’ve done all they can to pay rent, and that they meet the income and other eligibility criteria for the program.
Tenants who make false or misleading claims on those forms could face criminal or civil charges, the order states.
The protections may not take effect until Friday
Attorneys reviewing the new order say it’s not yet clear when the protections take effect.
It’s possible the rules kicked in as soon as the order was published Tuesday, when the CDC first announced it. But the protections may be delayed by technicalities.
As the Pittsburgh-based news site PublicSource reported, the order may first have to be published in the Federal Register, the daily journal of U.S. government actions. The order indicates that it will happen Friday.
Experts fear some tenants may fall through the cracks
Pennsylvania courts were allowed to receive new eviction claims Tuesday for the first time in six months.
Local media reports suggest that hundreds of evictions are already in motion.
Judges in Allegheny County received 181 eviction claims on Tuesday, according to PublicSource – roughly three times what the court processed in a typical day before the pandemic. Landlords in Lancaster, meanwhile, filed 51 claims.
One housing attorney told the Capital-Star that the CDC action might not be able to halt those cases. Instead, the order is written to prevent new claims from being filed.
If the federal mandate doesn’t take effect until Friday, that leaves three business days – Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday – when Pennsylvania courts can receive eviction claims.
“We’re all trying to figure out what it means,” Matthew Rich, an attorney at Midd Penn Legal Services in Harrisburg, said. “I don’t know if there’s anything to be done for cases that were filed or proceeded” after Pennsylvania’s ban lapsed.
Have questions? Call a legal aid office
Rich said the best thing tenants can do if they’re facing eviction is to call their local legal aid office. That’s where they can find attorneys who will help them navigate evictions and other civil court proceedings.
This tool from the Pennsylvania Legal Aid Network can help tenants find an office close to home.