For an adversarial proceeding, it was surprisingly amicable.
On Thursday, Rachel Wagner obtained an eviction order from Howard Hanna Exclusive Realty against tenant Jordan Smith for failing to pay rent of $ 5,500 after the federal government’s COVID-related moratorium expired on August 1.
After that, Wagner and Smith talked outside the courtroom of Magistrate Ben Jones.
“It sucks,” said Wagner, the landlord’s representative, about her successful legal work. “But it’s my job.”
“I get it,” said Smith, 40, who had at least 22 days to leave his home. “Landlords are just trying to make a living.”
On Thursday, Blair County was in “moderate” COVID-19 transmission level in which the deputies of the sheriff or police officers could still carry out evictions.
However, on Friday, Blair County moved in “significant” Transfer, which suspends eviction orders – although that doesn’t prevent judges from issuing them, according to the Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania.
In Smith’s case, it is best to move out as he has financial problems and lives alone in a four bedroom house.
“I was in good shape before COVID” said Smith, a waiter and bartender at the Outback Steakhouse.
“A damn good bartender”, Wagner said.
But then he was fired for four months as restaurants closed early last year. And even after his restaurant reopened, there were restrictions and he only worked part-time.
He got unemployment benefits, but it was “Not reliable, not steady” he said.
So he defaulted on the rent, which according to court records was $ 750 a month.
One of his troubles was the payment of child support, which, although not ordered by a court, he views as critical, Smith said.
He has three children, ages 12, 14 and 20.
He is considering storing his larger belongings and moving to a hotel near work, he said.
Another point of view
Another landlord’s agent at another clearance hearing before Jones that day did not share Wagner’s views.
Too many tenants have taken advantage of the moratorium and used 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 who was absent in court.
“I think (the situation) is terrible, terrible” for landlords, said Smith after the hearing. Many tenants laid off because of the pandemic received unemployment benefits, which often provided more than they earned from work.
“(But they) realized we couldn’t evict them, so they just stopped 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 onerous, she admitted.
But others failed to pull through the Community Action Agency, which manages ERAP locally – a failure that shows they are “I just don’t care” said blacksmith.
“If I’m $ 5,000 behind and a program is going to help me pay, I would keep in touch.” She said.
She hates driving people away. “I pull out all the stops” to avoid it, she said. But it is necessary to counteract those who have abused the system.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a new eviction moratorium on August 3, 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 have to pay.”
Instead, tell them how they can get help in advance. “There is a lot of help here” She said.
Both sides are fighting
“Landlords have a hard time” – Frustrated with the long moratorium, said Phyllis Chamberlain, executive director of the Pennsylvania Housing Alliance, which advocates for families “Safe, decent and affordable home” according to his website.
“I don’t want to neglect the landlord’s experience” Chamberlain said, but landlords don’t always know tenants’ financial situation.
Many tenants are struggling too, and some who aren’t making much may have chosen to use money that was previously used to rent for basic necessities like food and transportation, she said.
The initial moratorium “protected” Tenants, and the extension can help both tenants and landlords by giving tenants additional time 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 this point in time, evictions could have increased by 60 percent “As a result of the rise in the unemployment rate due to the economic stagnation” he wrote in an email.
“That argument is less convincing today (though) as we know much more about COVID and vaccines are widely available that can limit the spread and / or reduce the severity of the effects.” Ambrose wrote.
It is not certain that there will be an increase in evictions now, Chamberlain said.
However, it is likely that there has been a spike, as there was said to have been a significant spike in evictions last September during a four-day gap between the end of a state eviction ban that began in April and the start of the blanket CDC ban.
Ambrose cited statistics that suggest otherwise.
According to the National Multi-Housing Council Community, just over 80 percent of renters paid their rent for the week of August 6, which is only 1 percent less than for the same week in 2019.
It should be similar for landlords, says Ambrose.
As he reads anecdotal stories from landlords who are struggling “There is little evidence that there has been (a) large increase in multi-family (construction) loan defaults,” he wrote. This could mainly be due to government-funded mortgage companies offering leniency on payments to apartment building borrowers when they struggle to collect rents, he wrote.
It is ideal that both tenants and landlords use the ERAP program, said local lawyer Bill Haberstroh, whose clientele also 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 that provides stability to both landlords and tenants, State Department of Human Services spokesman Brandon Cwalina wrote in an email.
But ERAP is not a panacea if tenants are not careful enough and do not understand what is happening.
A pair of Altoona brothers who received money from ERAP to pay their landlord was activated by Jones on August 9, based on a ruling last October that the brothers failed to appeal.
Activation of the eviction warrant, permissible due to the lifting of the moratorium on August 1st, left the brothers confused and upset – despite the judge being told they did not want to live where they were “were not wanted.”
The brothers reminded the judge of a successful lawsuit their attorney had filed on their behalf in the spring and discussed the ERAP money the landlord had received.
Neither is relevant, said the judge.
They asked for time to get their lawyer back.
It wouldn’t do any good, said Jones.
He said he had no choice but to grant the landlord’s request.
“I think I would have prepared myself if I had known” said a brother.
They will likely store their large belongings and go to a motel for the time being, one brother said.
A recent poll by the Census Bureau found that more than 225,000 adults in Pennsylvania lived in households that “more likely” or “most likely” be evicted within two months, wrote Cwalina.
Tenants who are threatened with eviction can find legal help at the PA Legal Aid Network at palegalaid.net, according to Cwalina.
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