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Evictions impact renters, landlords

For an adversarial process, it was surprisingly amicable.

On Thursday, Howard Hanna Exclusive Realty’s Rachel Wagner obtained an eviction order against tenant Jordan Smith for failure to pay $5,500 in rent after the federal government’s COVID-related moratorium expired Aug. 1.

Afterward, outside Magisterial District Judge Ben Jones’ courtroom, Wagner and Smith were chatting.

“It sucks,” said Wagner, the landlord’s representative, about her successful legal effort. “But it’s my job.”

“I get it,” said Smith, 40, who was given at least 22 days to leave his house. “Landlords are just trying to make a living.”

On Thursday, Blair County was at the “moderate” COVID-19 transmission level, in which sheriff’s deputies or constables could still execute evictions.

On Friday, however, Blair County moved into “substantial” transmission, thus suspending eviction orders — although it doesn’t stop judges from granting them, according to the Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania.

In Smith’s case, moving out is best, given his financial struggles and his living alone in a four-bedroom house.

“I was in decent shape before COVID,” said Smith, a server and bartender at LongHorn Steakhouse.

“A damn good bartender,” Wagner said.

But then he was laid off for four months, as restaurants shut down early last year. And even after his restaurant reopened, there were restrictions, and he worked only part time.

He obtained unemployment compensation, but it was “not reliable, not steady,” he said.

So he fell behind on rent, which, according to court documents, was $750 a month.

His difficulties included payment of child support, which, although not court-mandated, he regards as critical, Smith said.

He has three children, ages 12, 14 and 20.

He’s considering putting his larger possessions in storage and moving to a hotel near work, he said.

Another view

Another landlord’s representative at a different eviction hearing before Jones that day didn’t share Wagner’s outlook.

Too many tenants have exploited the moratorium, using it as an excuse not to pay, said Tammy Smith of Stultz Real Estate, who obtained an eviction order against a tenant who was $3,100 in arrears — and not present in court.

“I think (the situation) is terrible, terrible” for landlords, Smith said after the hearing. Many tenants laid off due to the pandemic collected unemployment compensation that often provided more than they earned from work.

“(But they) realized we couldn’t evict, so they just quit paying,” she said.

She encouraged tenants to sign up for programs that would enable them to pay rent — the current one is the Emergency Rental Assistance Program.

Some found the program’s application requirements burdensome, she conceded.

But others didn’t follow through with the Community Action Agency, which administers ERAP locally — a failure that shows they “just didn’t care,” Smith said.

“If I’m $5,000 in arrears, and a program will help me pay, I would keep in contact,” she said.

She hates evicting people. “I pull out all the stops” to avoid it, she said. But it’s necessary to counter those who have abused the system.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Aug. 3 issued a new eviction moratorium in some cases, although it is being challenged in court.

The CDC’s action and even the initial moratorium were mistakes, she said. “Don’t tell people you don’t need to pay.”

Instead, tell them up front how they can get help. “There’s plenty of assistance out there,” she said.

Both sides struggling

“Landlords are absolutely struggling” — frustrated over the long moratorium, said Phyllis Chamberlain, executive director of the Pennsylvania Housing Alliance, which advocates for families to have “safe, decent and affordable home(s),” according to its website.

“I don’t want to discount the landlord experience,” Chamberlain said, but landlords don’t always know the tenants’ financial situation.

Many tenants are also struggling, and some who don’t earn much may have chosen to use money that formerly went to rent for basic needs, including food and transportation, she said.

The initial moratorium “protected” renters, and the extension can help both tenants and landlords by providing additional time for tenants to get help from ERAP, Chamberlain said.

The uncertainty about COVID-19 and the need to prevent people from being forced to move justified the initial moratoriums, according to Brent Ambrose, director of the Institute for Real Estate Studies at Penn State.

Without government action at that time, evictions could have increased by 60 percent “as a result of the rise in the unemployment rate due to the economic shutdown,” he wrote in an email.

“That argument is less compelling today, (however), given that we know much more about COVID and have vaccines widely available that can limit the spread and/or reduce the severity of the effects,” Ambrose wrote.

It’s not certain whether a proliferation of evictions is occurring now, according to Chamberlain.

It is likely there’s been a surge, however, given that there was a major spike in evictions last September during a four-day gap between the end of a state eviction ban that had begun in April and the start of the blanket CDC ban, she said.

Ambrose cited statistics that seem to indicate otherwise.

According to the National Multi-Housing Council Community just over 80 percent of tenants paid their rent for the week of Aug. 6, which is only 1 percent less than for the same week in 2019, he wrote.

It may be similar with landlords, according to Ambrose.

While he’s read anecdotal stories of landlords having trouble, “there is little evidence that there has been (a) large increase in multifamily (building) loan defaults,” he wrote. That may be due largely to government sponsored mortgage companies offering multifamily building borrowers forbearance on payments, if they’re having trouble collecting rents, he wrote.

Ideal solution

Clearly, the ideal is for both tenants and landlords to take advantage of the ERAP program, said local attorney Bill Haberstroh, whose clientele includes landlords.

The program is mutually beneficial, he said. All landlords want to keep their good tenants.

Evictions are preventable and ERAP is the answer, providing stability for both landlords and tenants, wrote state Department of Human Services spokesman Brandon Cwalina in an email.

But ERAP isn’t a panacea, if tenants don’t pay close enough attention and don’t understand all that may be happening.

A pair of brothers from Altoona who got money from ERAP to pay their landlord, were subject to an eviction order Aug. 9 that Jones activated, based on a ruling last October that the brothers had neglected to appeal.

The activation of the eviction order, permissible because of the lifting of the moratorium Aug. 1, left the brothers confused and dismayed — although one told the judge that they didn’t want to live where they “weren’t wanted.”

The brothers reminded the judge of a successful action by their lawyer on their behalf in the spring and they talked about the ERAP money that the landlord had received.

Neither was relevant, the judge said.

They asked for time to get their attorney again.

It wouldn’t do any good, Jones said.

He had no choice but to grant the landlord’s petition, he said.

“I think I’d have prepared if I’d known,” said one brother.

They’ll probably put their large belongings in storage and go to a motel for now, one brother said.

A recent Census Bureau survey found that more than 225,000 adults in Pennsylvania lived in households that are “somewhat likely” or “very likely” to be evicted within two months, Cwalina wrote.

Tenants at risk of eviction can find legal help from the PA Legal Aid Network at palegalaid.net, according to Cwalina.

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