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From the archives 2020

From relief to despair, one Pa. family struggles with the ambiguity of federal eviction ban

by Charlotte Keith of Spotlight PA |

As advocates rush to parse the often ambiguous language of the federal order, gray areas remain.
Dan Nott / For Spotlight PA

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HARRISBURG — On Tuesday, Joseph Fallacaro exchanged anxious emails with his lawyer, trying to understand whether a new federal eviction ban would protect him and his family.

If it did, they would be safe from eviction until Jan. 1, 2021.

If not, they could be locked out of their home in Bucks County at the end of the week.

On Wednesday, there were still no clear answers. The case fell into a legal gray area.

“I don’t know what the court will or won’t do,” Fallacaro’s lawyer told him.

By Thursday morning, Fallacaro was desperate. If they were evicted, how would his 10-year-old daughter keep up with online learning? How would he and his wife, at high risk because of medical conditions, stay safe from the coronavirus? Where would they go?

Finally, at 9:36 a.m., his lawyer clarified by email that the district court would hold off on the eviction after all — a last-minute reprieve. “The relief is unbelievable,” Fallacaro said.

His family’s experience, bouncing from relief to despair and back again, underscores the confusion and legal wrangling surrounding how the federal order will work.

Gov. Tom Wolf’s statewide ban on evictions expired Sept. 1, leaving thousands of families across Pennsylvania at risk of losing their homes. But later that day, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced a nationwide ban, halting evictions for failure to pay rent through the end of the year.

In the week leading up to the expiration of the state moratorium, there was an average of 60 new eviction filings per day. On Sept. 1, the day it expired, there were 1,911 filings statewide, according to an analysis by the CREATE Lab at Carnegie Mellon University and figures compiled by Philadelphia Legal Assistance. The numbers fell sharply after the federal eviction ban was announced, dropping to 328 on Sept. 4.

While those numbers include eviction filings for any reason and not just unpaid rent, they hint at the wave that could occur should protections be fully lifted.

In Pennsylvania, it’s up to courts in each county to decide how to interpret the federal order, a spokesperson for the state court system said. As advocates parse the often ambiguous language of the order, gray areas remain.

A legal analysis by a national housing advocacy group described one part of the order as “hilariously vague,” warning it was “destined to become an engine of controversy.”

Fallacaro’s case unfolded during a three-day window between when the federal order was announced and when it went into effect. The order prevents landlords from taking steps to evict a tenant as of Sept. 4. But Fallacaro’s lockout notice arrived on Sept. 1, the result of an eviction case filed before the pandemic halted such actions.

In March, a Bucks County judge ruled in favor of the Fallacaros’ landlord, who was trying to evict them over what she said was almost $9,000 in unpaid rent. Then the coronavirus closed courts and halted evictions.

Pennsylvania’s various eviction bans — issued first by the state Supreme Court, then by Wolf, and extended through the end of August — bought the family time. Fallacaro tried to appeal the original eviction case, but didn’t file the paperwork in time.

Meanwhile, medical bills piled up. His catering business closed because of the pandemic. They fell further behind on rent. In August, his family launched a GoFundMe page, pleading for help.

“No amount is too small. No share goes without our thanks,” they wrote. “We don’t seem to see any light at the end of this tunnel.”

As soon as Pennsylvania’s eviction ban lifted, the document that Fallacaro had been dreading all summer arrived. It was a court notice, with a warning highlighted in yellow: “Lockout may occur at any time after midnight” on Sept. 13.

The announcement of the CDC order promised relief. Fallacaro and his wife signed the required declarations and sent them to their landlord. But advocates had already flagged cases like this as an area of potential ambiguity, warning that the CDC order might not apply.

Think of the eviction process as a ball rolling down a hill, Fallacaro’s lawyer, Robert Kim, told him in an email. “The CDC order stops the landlord from touching the ball,” explained Kim, a staff attorney at Legal Aid of Southeastern Pennsylvania. But if the ball is already rolling down the hill, the order doesn’t say whether the courts have to catch it.

It seemed like Fallacaro’s family might fall through the cracks. Fallacaro struggled to shield his daughter from the threat of looming eviction.

“As much as I try not to let her see anything, she sees when the constable comes, she sees when I’m arguing on the phone,” he said.

Finally, on Thursday morning, Kim confirmed to Fallacaro that the court would not allow the eviction to move ahead.

Fallacaro’s landlord, Carol McCollough, was frustrated by the news.

“It’s not that I’m vengeful at all,” she said. The prospect of evicting the family was “horrible.” But, she said, they have not paid any rent this year and now owe roughly $20,000. Fallacaro’s lawyer said the parties disagree on how much rent is owed.

By January, McCollough said, the debt will likely be $30,000 and she will have to sell the house to cover the loss. It’s the only rental property she owns, bought as an investment for her children.

“No one knows what on earth is going on, and I’m left holding the bag with nothing in it,” she said.

Without money to help tenants pay rent, advocates say, the eviction ban only postpones the problem. In Pennsylvania, there is a $150 million program to help families struggling to make rent, but landlords and tenants agree that it is not working. Through the end of August, the state gave out just $3.8 million.

Lawmakers want to make changes, although it could be weeks before that happens. In the meantime, the existing program is running up against a Sept. 30 deadline to allocate all remaining funds.

Fallacaro still hopes to work something out with his landlord.

“I feel a lot better that we won’t be homeless come Saturday,” he said.

McCollough is not convinced.

“We’re just at a stalemate,” she said.

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