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State rental relief program nears its end as eviction cases get halted in courts

Intelligencer Journal - 9/24/2020

Since the state’s eviction moratorium expired on Sept. 1, over 240 landlord-tenant complaints — the first step in an eviction process — have been filed throughout Lancaster County, but a public health order issued Sept. 4 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is helping some renters, at least temporarily.

“The CDC Declaration has almost universally prevented area landlords from reclaiming their property, in more than one case, a landlord has received no income for 9 months, while having to pay the mortgage, utilities, taxes, and maintenance,” said Brandon Conrad, an attorney with Saxton & Stump in Lancaster who represents landlords and property managers.

According to clerks at two county MDJ offices, approximately five complaints have been halted under the terms of the CDC policy, which is aimed at curtailing the spread of COVID-19 by allowing families to remain in their homes.

A clerk with Magisterial Justice Bruce Roth’s court said that tenants are handed a CDC declaration when they come to court. Any tenant who signs it will see the eviction process placed on hold until the end of the year.

Lancaster County Court of Common Pleas President Judge David Ashworth filed an order on Sept. 11 outlining how district courts will process landlord-tenant complaints within the guidelines of federal rules on evictions.

Ashworth’s order gives guidance to landlords and tenants about how their cases will proceed if two federal rules -- the CARES Act limitation on evictions from properties that are utilizing federally backed loans, and the CDC order -- apply in their case.

Attached to Ashworth’s order is an affidavit that landlords must sign before submitting a landlord-tenant complaint between Sept. 4 and Dec. 31. By signing the document, the landlord is saying that the application does not violate either of the federal rules.

In addition, the order states that if a tenant presents a signed CDC declaration -- meaning they attest that they qualify for protections under the order -- at any time after a complaint is filed, the proceedings will come to a halt at least until Dec. 31.

Unlike in Philadelphia, the problem with the federal order's application in Lancaster is that the court does not offer landlords the chance to challenge the tenant’s declaration, Conrad said.

“In several cases, the tenant’s declaration is demonstrably false, but there is no practical remedy to permit a landlord to regain possession,” he said.

Meanwhile, with one week left for struggling tenants to apply for the state’s $150 million rental relief program, the legislature hasn’t extended the program or changed provisions that advocates say are too restrictive.

The House Urban Affairs Committee discussed a bill related to the state program, but the committee does not meet again until Sept. 29 -- the day before the program ends, said Justin Eby, deputy executive director of county redevelopment authority.

The bill, introduced by state Rep. Susan C. Helm, R-Dauphin, would strengthen the $175 million mortgage and rent relief assistance program by increasing assistance caps, eliminating the requirement that a household be in arrears, and extending the program through Oct. 31, among other changes.

“With the deadline to accept applications currently at September 30th (next Wednesday), we are running out of days for the changes to get through the legislative process,” Eby said.

The state requirements were changed to allow homeowners to apply for mortgage assistance before they are 30 days delinquent, according to Scott Elliot, director of communications at the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency. The change is allowing the agency to go through previously rejected applications to see if any applicants now qualify, he said.

Read court the order here:

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Crédito: HURUBIE MEKO | Staff Writer