Katie Meyer / WHYY
(Philadelphia) – Bucks County officials urge other counties to use a court ruling they recently won and stay eviction proceedings for the thousands of Pennsylvanians who face eviction from their homes them.
A federal moratorium on pandemic-era evictions ended on August 3. And although Pennsylvanians who owe rent arrears can now claim financial assistance through their county, there may be a delay before they actually receive the funds – leaving them at the mercy of landlords who could throw them away.
“It’s a problem in the counties of the Commonwealth of Nations, and really across the country,” said Josh Goldblum, senior attorney with Southeastern Pennsylvania Legal Aid. “People get kicked out when there is money waiting to fix the problem. It’s maddening.
That concern was the reason Legal Aid in June asked courts in Bucks, Montgomery, Delaware and Chester counties to delay eviction cases to give people enough time to get their financial aid. According to Legal Aid, two county courts argued they lacked that authority, but Bucks went ahead and issued an order allowing eviction delays in some cases.
As long as a person had applied for rental assistance through the Bucks Emergency Rental Assistance program, or BERA – which provides federal assistance funds – the judge ruled that the tenant could submit an application to a district judge, who could then suspend his deportation for 30 days.
Bucks court administrators have asked the state Supreme Court for a ruling, and judges upheld it – meaning it can now likely be legally enforced in any county in the Commonwealth.
Pennsylvania Acting Social Services Secretary Meg Snead called the Bucks’ approach “truly innovative” at a press conference with county officials on Tuesday, and noted that other counties had taken on board as well. measures to ensure that people are not deported before they get the help they’ve qualified for.
Philadelphia, she said, has a “robust” diversion program, as do Delaware, Montgomery and Allegheny counties. Now she wants to see these practices grow – especially as counties have new legal authority thanks to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court opinion.
“There is something they can replicate that has already been established and confirmed by the Bucks County courts,” she said. “It’s a good direction for them. “
Democratic State Senator Maria Collett, who serves parts of Bucks and Montgomery counties, notes that in conversations with her more conservative colleagues in GOP-controlled Harrisburg, a point of contention that often arises in discussions on topics such as moratoriums on evictions is how they are doing. affect owners.
She thinks that’s why some counties – especially the more conservative ones – have been “reluctant, resistant” to setting up something like Bucks’ BERA program. But she thinks that now that so much federal money is flowing, there is a lot of potential to find common ground.
“Our goal is really to make sure that landlords are taken care of as well, that we don’t see landlords suffering a loss of income from their rental properties just because we want to make sure people don’t end up homeless. cause of this pandemic, ”she said.
“The biggest hurdle is making sure that counties use the resources they have,” she added.
In total, Pennsylvania has so far received $ 847 million in the federal government’s first round of rent assistance funding and expects an additional $ 670 million through the US bailout. Statewide, Snead said, 30,500 people had applied for rental assistance as of June 30 and counties had granted $ 133 million.
The state oversees the distribution of federal funds by 47 counties and 18 major counties manage the process themselves.
At Bucks, which runs its own distribution efforts, officials estimate they have so far provided aid to more than 1,000 households and are still handling 4,000 cases.
There is no maximum amount for aid, but there is a time limit: 18 months of aid per applicant.
Applicants are eligible if they earn 80% of the area’s median income or less – in Bucks County, for example, a family of four earning $ 77,300 or less, or someone earning $ 54,150 or less would be eligible.
This is not the only layer of protection currently available to some Pennsylvanians. Federal officials recently issued an order freezing evictions in counties “with increased levels of community transmission” of COVID-19 until at least October 3.
Currently, the CDC has 48 of the 67 Commonwealth counties classified as having “high” or “substantial” transmission, and they therefore meet this threshold.
Keystone Crossroads is a statewide reporting collaboration of WITF, WPSU and WESA, led by WHYY. This story originally appeared in https://whyy.org/programs/keystone-crossroads.