The City Council Committee on Housing, Neighborhood Development & the Homeless met on Nov. 6 to amend three ordinances meant to provide relief to struggling tenants.
Bill 200414 seeks to address providing eviction relief. Bill 200420 will implement the waiver of certain fees. Bill 200421 addresses matters related to repayment agreements. All of these are ordinances amending Chapter 9-800 of the Philadelphia Code, which governs landlord and tenant relationships.
The committee amended bills 200420 and 200421, which received the first reading at the Nov. 12 City Council meeting. Bill 200414 is being held at the request of the sponsors because they declined to accept an amendment to make the eviction moratorium applicable only to tenants with COVID-19 hardships.
“We have done a comprehensive job of making sure that evictions don’t happen at a mass level in Philadelphia,” Anne Fadullon, deputy mayor of planning and development for the City of Philadelphia, said to the committee.
Councilmembers said the amended bills recognize the economic struggles of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Fadullon said the City received more than 17,000 applications for Phase 2 of the Rental Assistance Program, but only 10,897 of applications had active participation from both tenants and landlords.
Participation from both parties in the application process is required for relief approval. Just shy of 6,200 people could not get assistance because their landlords were not active participants in the process, Fadullon said.
Fadullon also announced an additional $20 million from the City Cares Fund would be used to assist those who couldn’t be served in Phase 2.
Councilmembers Gilmore Richardson and Cindy Bass both expressed their gratitude for the ability to not only help the people who are struggling because of COVID-19 but to direct resources to people who were struggling before COVID-19.
“My primary concern was to ensure that, with the passage of the legislation, we were able to assist individuals with revenue who were in process for eviction prior to COVID-19,” Richardson said. “Philadelphia has stepped up to show that through partnership and collective hard work, we can overcome differences to find common ground while still helping the most vulnerable people that we serve.”
“We really have gotten in front of an issue that really could have grown through the roof in Philadelphia, and we’ve gotten in front of it,” she said. “It feels as if no one is untouched.”
The only people who have not been reached by this money are people outside the system — those without proper documentation and who haven’t faced eviction through the courts, Bass said.
The City has dedicated more $70 million to rental and eviction assistance since the beginning of the pandemic, Fadullon said.
“For us to not only provide $70 million, but also be able to get systems up, programs up, run it through, get in applications and get them approved and get that money out the door, it has been incredible,” she said.
Various housing advocates spoke to the committee as witnesses, encouraging councilmembers to vote for renter relief.
“These bills are needed to ensure that Philadelphians have access to safe housing while giving them the time that they need to get back on their feet,” Vikram Patel, an attorney with the housing unit at Community Legal Services, said.
Because of the continued rise in COVID-19 cases, Philadelphians cannot be expected to immediately pay back their rent in order to avoid an eviction, Patel said.
“With the pandemic hitting Philly even harder than it did this summer, we need these protections now more than ever,” he said. “We strongly urge you to vote for the bills before the committee today.”
Because of the continued economic hardship of the pandemic, Patel also spoke out against landlords instituting late fees for overdue rent.
“Late fees will just dig a hole that no one can climb out of,” he said.
Brianna Westbrooks, government affairs manager with the Pennsylvania Apartment Association, tried to bring landlords’ perspectives to bear on the legislation.
“While we completely agree that Philadelphians facing COVID-19 hardships must have a grace period, we also want to acknowledge that landlords are small businesses too,” she said. “We have to be mindful of some of the challenges that they are facing during this time.”
Rev. Gregory Holston, senior pastor at Janes Memorial United Methodist Church, also spoke in support of the bills.
He shared a story about a man shot across the street from Janes Memorial four years ago. Holston learned the victim was a homeless man who dealt drugs in order to acquire resources he needed to afford a place to live.
Holston said the story should remind councilmembers how intricately woven the issues that Philadelphia faces truly are.
“When you take people out of their homes, for whatever reason, it will lead to more gun violence,” he said. “It will lead to more people being killed on the streets. And I would dare say that if we allow these kinds of evictions to go forward, it will increase gun violence in a way that all of our discussions with law enforcement could not decrease.”
Evictions make people more vulnerable, Holston said.
“All of these things are linked together,” he said. “And we cannot end our gun violence by evicting thousands of people from their homes.”
During public comment, Crystal Cole, a Philadelphia native and landlord, expressed concern that the bills would act as a blanket eviction moratorium. She told the committee about a negative experience she had with a tenant who refused to pay rent and refused to move out.
“The tenant has since changed the locks, moved out, and has her brother living there,” Cole said. “And got a pit bull. They will not allow entry into the house. They have even assaulted me.”
Cole does not disagree there is a need for eviction relief, but a blanket moratorium would give landlords little recourse to deal with problem tenants, she said.
“I understand that due to COVID-19 some people are very much struggling,” Cole said. “This tenant has cost me a lot of money. I don’t know how much longer I can bear the burden or the brunt of this unfortunate situation.”
Councilmember Gauthier also updated the public that Philadelphia Municipal Court issued an order banning residential evictions in Philadelphia through Dec. 31, 2020, except in limited circumstances where landlords show good cause.
“Those of us who work in this space and have for many, many years take this work extremely seriously,” Councilmember Maria Quinones-Sanchez said. “There is still a lot of work to be done, but we are always on the same road. Not always on the same lane, but definitely going in the same direction.”
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