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The Freedom to Stay town hall was held on April 16, 2020. Photo: WTAE-TV
The Freedom to Stay town hall was held on April 16, 2020. Photo: WTAE-TV

State alliance of community orgs calls on Governor Wolf and other elected officials to cancel rent and mortgages amid COVID-19

Three Pennsylvania reps proposed a rent and mortgage freeze at the end of March.

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While evictions in Pennsylvania have been put on hold by the state’s Supreme Court until April 30, landlords are still able to charge tenants for rent and get charged themselves for mortgages.

For notices filed before the Supreme Court’s ruling, landlords can still assess late fees, late rents and send default and quit notices to tenants facing eviction.

As attorney Steven Williams explained in a post on his firm’s website, the allowances let landlords effectively “tee up” evictions for when the courts open again.

“It merely prevents the filing of any new eviction complaint and proceeding of any pending eviction case,” wrote Williams.

As a result, many Pennsylvanians still risk eviction for missing charges during the imposed quarantine. 

That could be the case for millions, considering the state has the highest unemployment filings of any state in the country. It’s now estimated one in five PA workers are now unemployed because of the coronavirus shutdown. 

In response, three state reps published a memorandum to PA’s general assembly at the end of March proposing a rent and mortgage freeze for the duration of the state’s lockdown.

On April 16, the reps, Sara Innamorato and Summer Lee of Allegheny County, Elizabeth Fielder of Philadelphia county and Daniel Friel Otten of Chester County were joined by over 300 working-class and Latinx Pennsylvanians at a virtual town hall about the issue.

At the Freedom to Stay town hall, organized by One Pennsylvania, Make the Road PA and CASA, impacted families called on PA Governor Tom Wolf and other elected officials to go forward with the proposed rent and mortgage freezes.

“Our constituents are facing a pandemic and an economic crisis all at the same time… it’s time for the state government to step up,” said Fielder. 

The public forum was also a time for constituents to share their experiences dealing with landlords during the shutdown. Reviews were far from glowing.

For LizaMarie, a member of Make the Road Pennsylvania, she couldn’t afford her April rent because of losing work as a result of the coronavirus shutdown.

“On April 9, my landlord came with a truck and several men to try to and take the furniture out of my apartment,” she said. “Now he’s harassing me and trying to evict me even though evictions right now are illegal because of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

LizaMarie went on to say that she’d also likely not be able to pay rent in May, and “needed to know” if the government would protect her during the crisis.

But to cancel rents without also canceling mortgages would leave landlords with the short end of the stick. 

Take Maribel, a CASA member, for example. She rents a few apartments out and said she would find immense difficulty in evicting residents affected by both the psychological trauma of the virus itself and of losing a job.

“I know I can’t do that,” she said at the town hall. “Our lawmakers need to cancel mortgage payments so landlords can cancel rents.”

The national picture

So far, rent and mortgage freezes are something, like in PA, being debated and considered by legislators across the country in response to COVID-19’s economic destruction.

Only Washington D.C. has gone forward to pass a rent freeze and mortgage payment deferral for its residents and landlords as part of its City Council’s second COVID-19 relief bill. 

However, there is a bill mulling in New York’s Senate and General Assembly since March 27 that would give renters a 90-day freeze on rent. 

Elsewhere, Washington state and a number of other municipalities across the country have implemented freezes on increasing rent, but have not canceled their collection.

In California, Governor Gavin Newsom has put a moratorium on evictions, but many renters are still planning a rent strike until further legislation in line with a rent freeze is implemented.

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