Editor’s Note: On Tuesday, April 28, after this story was published, the state Supreme Court amended its previous stay on court actions and extended the prohibition on evictions and foreclosures until Monday, May 11.
In the early weeks of Pennsylvania’s response to the coronavirus, the state Supreme Court put a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures. That protection runs out on Friday.
Advocacy group Pittsburgh United organized a virtual town hall meeting Monday and called on state and local officials to extend the deadline.
Housing is crucial to protect the health of individuals and communities during the pandemic, speakers said, and noted that people can not shelter in place if they lose their shelter.
“If there is mass displacement, mass eviction, that is a public health crisis,” said Celeste Scott, Pittsburgh United’s housing justice organizer.
Allegheny County Council passed a motion that supports the extension of moratoria on evictions, foreclosures, and utility shutoffs, but it’s non-binding, said Councilor Liv Bennett. She said her colleagues are worried that passing legislation on the issue is outside their purview.
“If there’s any time to be stepping over boundaries and doing things that are going to protect folks it’s now,” she said.
The statewide moratorium runs through April 30, but the order from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court gives individual counties the power to extend the prohibition on court action through the end of May. In Allegheny County, President Judge Kim Clark pushed the deadline to May 8.
To pursue an eviction is costly, time-consuming, and risky for both tenant and landlord, said Kevin Quisenberry, an attorney with the nonprofit Community Justice Project.
“Eviction is really a lose-lose situation,” he said. “Especially if it’s over non-payment of rent and there’s some ability for that tenant to catch up at some point.”
Quisenberry said the sudden economic devastation created by coronavirus is no one's fault. He echoed an open letter to Pittsburgh landlords, signed by nearly 100 individuals and organizations, that urges them to work with lenders to protect themselves as well as their tenants. Virtually every bank is now offering mortgage forbearance or deferral options, said Quisenberry.
“If a landlord calls and says, ‘My tenant has lost income, I’m having trouble making my mortgage payment,” every mortgage lender and servicer in our area is offering that,” he said.
A federal stimulus bill, the CARES Act, suspended foreclosures through May 18 for those whose mortgage is backed by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac. Borrowers can request to reduce or stop their payment for three months. For people who live in federally-supported housing, an eviction protection for non-payment lasts until July 25.
Speakers at the town hall worried that once the prohibitions on eviction and foreclosure actions lift there will be a massive wave of home losses, especially if tenants are asked to pay missed rent all at once.
That would “create a bigger disaster,” said Rep. Summer Lee. She and colleagues in Harrisburg are working to introduce a bill that would not just freeze rent and mortgages for the months Pennsylvanians are locked down, but cancel it.
Earlier in the town hall, Quisenberry said there’s a fundamental legal issue with canceling debt.
“There are constitutional prohibitions against legislative interference with contracts,” he said.
However, Quisenberry expects there will be assistance to help renters make payments. Both he and Bob Damewood, an attorney with Regional Housing Legal Services, expect to see a local fund to provide assistance.
The CARES Act provided money for state and local governments to cover the costs of responding to the pandemic, said Damewood.
“There’s no reasons why those funds can’t be used to pay rent and mortgage relief that were a result of this COVID crisis,” he said.
Guidance issued by the U.S. Treasury Department on April 22 states that the funds can be used to address “second-order effects of the emergency,” but there has been debate about whether housing would be a permissible use of the federal money.