HARRISBURG -- At least 240,000 Pennsylvania families are at risk of being put out on the street when a federal moratorium on rental evictions expires on Dec. 31, housing advocates estimate.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty in terms of what’s going to happen” when the moratorium ends, said Phyllis Chamberlain, executive director of the Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania.

The U.S. Centers for Disease and Control put the moratorium on evictions in place in September due to concerns that families evicted from rentals would end up seeking shelter with others, creating overcrowded conditions that would only aggravate the likelihood of COVID-19 outbreaks.

That federal moratorium began just as Pennsylvania’s state ban on evictions ended in early September. At that point,  Gov. Tom Wolf announced he didn’t think he had the authority to continue renewing the eviction ban and the General Assembly failed to pass legislation authorizing an eviction moratorium. 

The National Council of State Housing Agencies commissioned a study that examined Census data and found that at least 240,000 families will be at risk of being evicted when that moratorium ends, Chamberlain said. The study found that in Pennsylvania, 260,000 to 400,000 renter households (16%-25% of renter households in the state) are estimated to be falling behind on rent. By January, these households will have $697 million to $958 million in back rent, and 240,000 of those households will be so far behind in their rent payments that they face eviction.

That’s compared to less than 100,000 evictions in Pennsylvania in all of 2019 before the pandemic hit, according to the study. The assumptions used in generating that estimate were conservative enough that advocates fear that it could be an underestimation, she said.

Even with that federal moratorium in place, evictions have continued, said John Gandrud, an attorney with Northwestern Legal Services, based in Erie. The COVID eviction moratoriums protect renters from being displaced if they’ve fallen behind on their rent due to loss of income from pandemic business closings, he said. That moratorium doesn’t bar landlords from seeking to evict tenants by claiming the residents have created problems by making disturbances or damaging the property.

To be protected by the CDC order, a tenant has to swear that he or she has sought public assistance and that they can’t pay the rent because of job loss, reduced hours or medical bills. Landlords have successfully taken renters before district magistrates to dispute that a tenant qualifies for protection under the CDC order, Gandrud said.

Like Chamberlain, Gandrud said he’s not sure what kind of fallout there will be when the moratorium expires.

“I don’t have a handle on how bad it’s going to be. There are so many factors,” he said.

Some landlords may think that rather than risk having an empty apartment unit, it’s a safer bet to allow tenants to remain and hope that more federal stimulus will generate rental assistance to cover the overdue rent, he said.

He said he does expect to see more clients seeking help as landlords begin eviction proceedings though.

Chamberlain said that she hopes that when President-elect Joe Biden takes office, his administration will move to reinstate a new moratorium.

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