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Pa. issues new eviction moratorium after fears rent relief would be too slow

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"I am taking this action to help families know they will have a roof over their heads and a place to live while all of us fight the COVID-19 pandemic," Gov. Tom Wolf said in a statement.
Commonwealth Media Services

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HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania will offer another reprieve for the thousands of tenants struggling to pay rent because of the coronavirus outbreak, Gov. Tom Wolf announced Thursday, after Democratic lawmakers and advocates urged him to act.

The statewide eviction and foreclosure moratorium, which had been set to expire Saturday, will now run through Aug. 31, giving a new rental assistance program that stumbled in its first days more time to get off the ground.

“I am taking this action to help families know they will have a roof over their heads and a place to live while all of us fight the COVID-19 pandemic,” Wolf said in a statement.

The move comes after Democratic lawmakers and community groups publicly lobbied Wolf for an extension, arguing that allowing evictions to proceed would jeopardize renters’ health, hitting communities of color particularly hard.

“We really appreciate the governor’s recognition that extending the moratorium is essential to helping people stay at home and not be at increased risk for the virus,” said Phyllis Chamberlain, executive director of the Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania. “We also appreciate the extension because it gives people in need of rental assistance more time to actually receive it.”

A new statewide rental assistance program began accepting applications on Monday, leaving a tight window for payments to be processed in order to prevent evictions before the moratorium expired. But the first few days were rocky, as many applicants were confused about the paperwork they had to provide, and application forms in Spanish were not yet available.

The $150 million program, funded by dollars Pennsylvania received under the federal CARES Act, offers relief to tenants who have fallen behind on rent because of the coronavirus outbreak. To be eligible, renters must show that since March 1, they either filed for unemployment or lost at least 30% of their annual income, which must not exceed the median in their county.

Tenants are still on the hook for rental payments that accrue during the eviction moratorium. The governor’s order only applies to evictions for non-payment of rent; evictions for other reasons, like property damage, may continue.

Courts across Pennsylvania have interpreted the governor’s earlier order differently, with some suspending evictions for any reason, not just failure to pay rent, said Leah Sailhamer, vice president of government affairs at the Pennsylvania Apartment Association.

“Our biggest challenge is the people we need to evict for health and safety reasons,” Sailhamer said.

The announcement follows the example set by Philadelphia, where Mayor Jim Kenney last week signed off on an eviction moratorium through the end of August.

The Philadelphia landlords association HAPCO had asked for a temporary restraining order in federal court to block the city’s extension of its eviction moratorium. The governor’s order Thursday rendered that request moot and the association withdrew it. By July 16, HAPCO plans to amend its lawsuit challenging City Council’s package of bills that grant relief for renters struggling financially because of the pandemic.

Thursday’s order is a step in the right direction but doesn’t go far enough, said Patty Torres, organizing director at Make the Road Pennsylvania, which is pushing for an indefinite extension of the eviction moratorium.

“Aug. 31 will come and then again we’ll be in the same position,” she said.

Inquirer staff reporter Michaelle Bond contributed reporting.

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