Allegheny County President Judge Kim Clark declared a judicial emergency Monday night for the Fifth Judicial District of Allegheny County. The order halts almost all criminal and civil proceedings through April 14, which means a county-wide moratorium on evictions.
The stay on evictions is important to renters who are struggling financially, and it also helps bolster public health, said City of Pittsburgh Councilor Deb Gross.
“It does no one any good to force an individual or a family out of their home and into a group shelter situation while we are encouraging everyone to stay at home,” she said.
Last week Gross called for an immediate halt to utility shutoffs as well as a moratorium on evictions from both private residences and public housing. Agencies such as Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority and the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh agreed. Subsequently, the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission issued an order that disallows any utility from cutting service. But Pittsburgh City Council lacks the legal authority to regulate private landlords, said Gross.
The judicial emergency issued Monday means Allegheny County residents cannot be evicted, even from privately owned apartments, because evictions cannot proceed through the courts.
However, the stay does not apply to situations in which public health is threatened, said Michelle Sandidge, chief community affairs officer for the city’s Housing Authority.
“The types of evictions that definitely don’t fall underneath the moratorium category is violent crime [and] drug-related felony type offenses,” she said.
Without the stay on evictions a lot of people would be homeless due to the fallout from coronavirus, said Barbara Kern, a managing attorney with the non-profit, public interest law firm Neighborhood Legal Services.
“That would cause a problem for the entire society,” she said. “You don’t want homeless people with no place to go, not able to get assistance because everything else is shut down.”
As of Tuesday morning, more than 60 organizations have signed an open letter addressed to city and county officials and agencies that calls for both immediate action and more money for public housing and services and housing moving forward.
“Those who face homelessness or day-to-day housing insecurity are at a higher risk of being exposed to the virus, becoming ill, and suffering catastrophic health outcomes,” the letter says. “Moreover, workers in the service sector are vulnerable to losing income and therefore facing eviction because of workplace closings, school closings and missed work.”
Rep. Sara Innamorato shared news of the halt on evictions on Twitter and wrote, “Next step: let’s issue a statewide moratorium. Nobody should be fighting to keep their home in a public health crisis.”
The threat presented by coronavirus is an acute crisis, but Kern said the real problem is an existing one.
“People with low incomes, fragile jobs, having to pay rents and utility bills that are barely within their ability to pay,” she said. “One crisis in their life puts them totally out of whack.”
Kern has worked at Neighborhood Legal Services for 25 years and said the problem has been around just as long.
“And if anything [it] has gotten worse, not better.”
Anecdotal reports suggest that some small, private landlords are telling tenants not to worry about rent, Gross said. One Homestead landlord, who manages four units, said he would cover his tenants’ April rent, but asked that his name not be used.
Some worry that temporary reprieves or promises to work it out later will still leave vulnerable renters in the lurch.
The Pittsburgh Neighborhood Project in a tweet asked the authors of the open letter to add a provision to help renters pay outstanding rent once the eviction moratorium lifts. “We could see mass eviction after [COVID-19] is under control, if renters can’t pay back rent.”
Gross said the goal is definitely not to put tenants out on the street months from now. Instead, all levels of government have an obligation to “help defray those costs all around so that everybody is able to weather through this crisis and come out of it OK.”
One proposal may be to create a moratorium on property taxes for small landlords, so they don’t need to seek back rent, and for small businesses, “the heart and soul of our economy.”
All such proposals would need the support of county and state government.