900,000 Pennsylvanians could face eviction this fall if government fails to act

The crisis facing Pennsylvanian renters is a microcosm of the looming national housing crisis, experts say

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published September 5, 2020 2:00PM (EDT)

During a protest organized by Make the Road Pennsylvania outside the Berks County Services Building in Reading, PA Tuesday afternoon September 1, 2020 to call for Gov. Wolf and the State Legislature to extend the eviction moratorium in Pennsylvania indefinitely. The group is concerned about the risk of eviction to people affected by the economic downturn resulting from the ongoing COVID-19 / Coronavirus pandemic. (Ben Hasty/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images)
During a protest organized by Make the Road Pennsylvania outside the Berks County Services Building in Reading, PA Tuesday afternoon September 1, 2020 to call for Gov. Wolf and the State Legislature to extend the eviction moratorium in Pennsylvania indefinitely. The group is concerned about the risk of eviction to people affected by the economic downturn resulting from the ongoing COVID-19 / Coronavirus pandemic. (Ben Hasty/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images)

Every day when 23-year-old Brittany Bells arrives at her apartment in Allentown — a city of around 100,000 in the Pennsylvania Rust Belt — she fears an eviction notice could be tacked to the door. Since the start of the pandemic, Bells, who says she has always paid rent on time, has been in her landlord's crosshairs. Her fears were heightened after her father died in August; he co-signed her lease back in 2018, and she accuses her landlords of harassing her ever since he passed away. Despite paying rent on time since the pandemic started, and keeping up with the occasional late fees that she accrued before then, she tells Salon that the pandemic provided her landlord with an opportunity to kick her out — and they pounced.

"This is the notice of when they told me that they wouldn't want to renew my lease. That was in April, but they already filed to kick me out in March [shortly after the pandemic started]," Bells, who declined to use her real name for fear of retaliation from her landlord, told Salon. She says that they falsely accused her of having an extra dog and of having an unsigned tenant with her. When she finally confronted them and said she thought they were doing this because her dad died, they indirectly confirmed her accusation by pointing out that she wasn't making her stated income (hers plus her father's), even though she had been paying rent on time. Bells got a second job, although the landlords weren't moved by that. (Salon reached out to the real estate company that owns Bells' building and did not hear back from them.)

As far as renters like Bell are concerned, Pennsylvania is a bellwether of the rest of America. Despite being the fifth most-populous state, and having concomitant economic resources, Pennsylvania has struggled to prevent a mass eviction crisis stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic. The federal CARES Act, which was passed in March, only protected individuals whose rental units are in properties that either use federal assistance or had a multifamily mortgage loan or federally backed mortgage. According to the Urban Institute, this only covered roughly 28 percent of all rental units in the U.S., and it expired on July 24. This meant that individual states have had to develop their own policies to prevent the eviction crisis from getting even worse.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, responded to concerns over eviction by using his emergency powers on May 11 to declare a 60-day moratorium on eviction and foreclosure notices, following that with a 52-day extension on July 9. On August 24, however, Wolf informed the state legislature that he would not renew the moratorium after it expires on August 31, claiming that he did not have the legal authority to do so. Critics have questioned whether this is actually the case; either way, the future of housing in Pennsylvania looks bleak.

As Marc Stier of the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center pointed out, almost 900,000 Pennsylvanians will be homeless once the moratorium ends and landlords have their way with mass evictions. In Pennsylvania, it only takes roughly one month for a person to be locked out from the moment the eviction complaint is filed unless it is appealed, and even with an appeal, tenants are still required to pay their rent to stay an eviction order.

Not only will this cause a homelessness epidemic in Pennsylvania, it could also lead to a spike in COVID-19 infections as people either live on the streets or take shelter in cramped living quarters with relatives, friends or in homeless shelters. Unfortunately, President Donald Trump has done very little to address this problem. Last month he issued an executive order that largely consisted of recommendations to agency leaders without actually implementing policies to help people at risk of eviction. On Tuesday he ordered the CDC to grant an additional moratorium, but it requires tenants to jump through a number of bureaucratic hoops in order to qualify, does not apply to all tenants and allows landlords who want to kick people out because of inability to pay rent to come up with other excuses for doing so.

"The CDC eviction moratorium applies to nonpayment cases," Shamus Roller, executive director of the National Housing Law Project, told Salon by email. "The order allows for evictions for lease violations and a number of other categories outlined in the order."

He added, "These exceptions are not very well defined and I anticipate that landlords will attempt to evict tenants who are unable to pay their full rent by claiming that they have violated some other term of the lease. Perhaps they have a family member living with them who isn't technically allowed on the lease but the landlord has known about it for months or years. Some landlords will claim false damage to the property or other alleged violations." Roller also noted that Trump's order does not apply to individuals who lives in "hotels, motels and other temporary accommodations," pointing out that "there are many hotels that rent by the week or month and are almost indistinguishable from apartments. For many people on the edge of homelessness, these longer term motels are home."

Roller also pointed to the lack of rent forgiveness for people who have been financially harmed by the pandemic as particularly problematic.

"It means that tenants will owe the full amount in the new year," Roller explained. "It means that this may come with the challenges of other consumer debt. It means that for many people it is a delay of their eviction but not a full reprieve from it." Even landlords are put at risk by the absence of rent relief, "especially smaller landlords that serve populations with higher unemployment levels. If the pandemic results in further consolidation of the rental market by corporations and real estate trusts, that will not benefit tenants over the long term."

It is also important to remember that these housing issues for low income Pennsylvanians long preceded the pandemic. 

"Housing affordability, evictions and habitability issues have been chronic," Daniel Vitek, a staff attorney at the Community Justice Project (CJP) in Pittsburgh, told Salon by email. CJP, as he explained, is a law firm within the Pennsylvania Legal Aid network that focuses on class action litigation and policy advocacy, and has mostly found itself directly representing renters in the western part of the state.

"Prior to the pandemic, tenants were facing an affordability crisis for safe, decent rental housing. Additionally, tenants had very few rights protecting them from unscrupulous landlords and limited access to help enforcing those rights," Vitek explained. The pandemic has exacerbated those problems, he wrote, because "the historic unemployment and loss of income has increased the affordability crisis. Those who end up being sued for eviction will have a negative rental history which will make finding safe, quality housing even harder. For the elderly or others at high risk of contracting COVID-19, finding housing has become increasingly difficult."

Vitek was also dubious of Gov. Wolf's claim that he lacks the legal authority to do more to stop evictions, saying that he could "rethink" his position and noting that "the governor can work with the agency in charge of the state's rental assistance program (the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency) to improve the effectiveness of the program. That would go a long way in helping people stay in their homes."

One Pennsylvania tenant who is facing eviction — an Allentown resident who asked to go by the pseudonym Jessica Rivera for this article — said that she felt Trump and Wolf are "handling it [the eviction crisis] pretty well" but feels that "they should give people a little bit more time to actually be able to handle what they can with everything happening so fast." 

Rivera told Salon that, due to medical complications while she was pregnant, she was forced to stay in the hospital for two-and-a-half weeks. Eventually she and her doctors agreed to perform a C-section on her, even though her child was born roughly three months early and had to stay in the NICU for two months as a result. After giving birth, Rivera underwent surgery for a medical condition known as achalasia that caused her esophagus to close up, further preventing her from working at her job as a teacher at a daycare.

"I called Hispanic organizations, spoke with someone there, and I left a message where she never called me back," Rivera told Salon. "And then I called a conference of churches. They said that they would do a phone interview and I haven't received a call. And then I received a letter in the mail from my landlord that they can not wait for unemployment and they can not wait for stimulus checks for the rent." (Salon reached out to Rivera's landlord and did not receive a response.)

"The eviction moratorium is critical for helping to protect people's health, because if you don't have a place to live, it is difficult if not impossible to socially distance from others — but the eviction moratorium is really only a temporary solution and the best way to help renters avoid eviction is by providing rental assistance," Phyllis Chamberlain, executive director of Housing Alliance PA, told Salon. "We certainly had hopes that the eviction moratorium would be extended and it's disappointing that it doesn't look like it will be, but rental assistance is really important to have as a resource to address the root problem, which is not having money to pay rent."

Like Vitek, she emphasized that the housing crisis preceded the pandemic.

"When you're making low wages, most Americans don't have much in savings, but when you don't make a lot of money already, you just have less to be able to handle an emergency, like the emergency that COVID-19 has created," Chamberlain explained. "There are also higher rates of housing, instability, and homelessness for black and Latinx households. So getting further behind is likely to exacerbate the existing disparities."

Marimba Milliones, the president and CEO of the Hill Community Development Corporation (which focuses on the redevelopment and revitalization of the Hill District neighborhood in Pittsburgh), shared stories of renters' tribulations with Salon. She told of a renter he'd met who was suffering from an autoimmune disease: "She has lost two family members to COVID-19," Milliones told Salon. "She has a family member who is living with her who has been diagnosed with COVID-19 and can no longer contribute to the household income, and therefore she is facing a need for additional rent support." She also read quotes from people who have reached out to her organization for assistance:

"I'm unable to full rent due to COVID shutdown."

"Furloughed from part time jobs since March out of work for two weeks in quarantine."

"My unit at work was shut down due to COVID-19. It has impacted my ability to pay in a timely fashion."

When it comes to possible responses in Pennsylvania, one solution has been proposed by

Some Pennsylvania politicians are trying to figure out alternative solutions. Democratic Rep. Michael Schlossberg, who represents parts of Allentown and South Whitehall Township, proposed two pieces of legislation: HB 2838, which would "require landlords to create a payment plan option for tenants that may have lost income due to a statewide emergency like COVID-19," and HB 2839, which would "prohibit landlords from charging late fees on rent payments to tenants with lost income during a statewide emergency."

"We're trying," Schlossberg told Salon when asked about the looming eviction crisis. "We're trying to do something." He expressed frustration with his Republican colleagues, who control both houses of the state legislature, arguing that "we can't get these bills move because my Republican colleagues who control the legislature have not seen it fit to move them."

If things don't move, and people start getting evicted in large numbers, the situation could quickly get ugly — and not merely in ways that the ruling class is willing to accept.

"The fact that the people don't pay rent means the landlords don't get the rent," Dr. Richard D. Wolff, professor emeritus of economics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst told Salon. "If the landlords don't get the rent, they can't pay their debts to the banks from whom they have borrowed, and that puts the banks in a jeopardy and they can't function. And so you have what system collapses always meant — namely, the chain reaction from whatever starts it, which is basically arbitrary, to all the other linked connections that make an economy into a totality in the first place. And that's literally what we are going through."

Wolff noted how, during the Great Depression of the 1930s, farmers and others facing eviction shot judges and other powerful people who were trying to forcibly throw them out of their homes. Such violence would not be inconceivable if a similar situation evolved on a large scale in the United States, Wolff observed. Indeed, Wolff explained, one of the reasons President Franklin Roosevelt began to take the Depression-era eviction crisis seriously was that he saw renters turning to staunch left-wing groups like the Communist Party, which actually advocated on their behalf. Roosevelt and his supporters convinced other moderates that the political implications of this development were dire in terms of their own self-interest, and this helped mobilize them to act.

In the meantime, it's unclear who, if anyone, will come to the aid of renters like Brittany Bells. Not Trump, she said: "He's been putting so many things out there about preventing evictions and makes it seem helpful, but in reality he isn't helping anyone at all," she told Salon.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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