Lucille Davis, a senior citizen who has a disability, has bounced from one dilapidated North Philadelphia rental to another.
When a pipe burst in her Strawberry Mansion home last year, her landlord was straight with her: They didn’t have the money for repairs, advising her to simply move on. Rushing to find home, the former nursing assistant settled for a deteriorating property on “a bad drug block” in North Philadelphia that nevertheless cost $900 a month.
“I saw the sagging ceiling. The windows in the back didn’t close all the way,” she said. “[The landlord] told me he would fix it before I moved in.”
Her new landlord never made good on the promise –– and then COVID-19 struck. When a backed-up sewer line began sending sewage into her basement, she got a familiar response from her landlord in early August when she demanded repairs.
“He got frustrated and said ‘Well, do you just want to buy the house from me?’ When I said no, he said he would just sell the house,” she recalls. “I knew that wasn’t true. He just wanted me out.”
While Davis resolved to leave on her own accord, her daughter advised that she stop paying rent until the landlord fixed her plumbing issue. But finding an affordable home was hard enough before the pandemic had squeezed rental supply, let alone while stuck between a home she didn’t want, a landlord who wanted her out, and homelessness.
Then the eviction paperwork came. Despite a nominal statewide moratorium on new evictions, her landlord, who is based in Montgomery County, still filed a complaint against her in Municipal Court, citing the $900 in rent she withheld that month, court records show.
“I get some papers in the mail, eviction papers,” she said. “Last Friday, a man came and made sure I got it. I just started crying.”
This uncertainty has long been a fact of life for tens of thousands of renters in Philadelphia, a reality that has only worsened during the pandemic. There are many like Davis stuck with precarious incomes, limited rental options and shifting COVID-19 tenant protections as officials, landlord groups and housing advocates battle over how to handle a predicted crush of evictions.
The statewide moratorium that Davis thought would protect her while she searched for her third home in under a year expired not long after the legally mandated process server arrived to verify that she received her eviction notice.
That same morning, Pa. Gov. Tom Wolf called on the General Assembly to pass a bipartisan bill to create a new legislative moratorium and provide “immediate help so Pennsylvanians can stay in their homes.”
By nightfall, the Centers for Disease Control issued a surprise announcement barring certain lower-income residents from being evicted through the end of 2020 — as a public health initiative.
Davis said she has only pieced together sporadic updates about renter protections “on the news.” Rasheedah Phillips, from legal aid group Community Legal Services, said the patchwork of stay orders and sporadic subsidy programs leave many housing clients in the dark.
“We’re happy to see this come out. It’s necessary and crucial and will help a lot of renters stay stable,” she said of the new CDC guidelines. “But I think there remains some uncertainty around it that needs to be clarified by local courts. It doesn’t put any burden on the landlord to notify the tenant that this exists…We have to notify tenants of this protection.”
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