In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, federal and state governments and courts have taken measures to protect tenants from being evicted from their homes. On March 18, 2020, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court put a temporary ban on all evictions until April 3, 2020. The Court then extended the temporary ban through April 30, 2020, specifically stating that, during this period, no officer, official, or other person employed by the Pennsylvania Judiciary at any level shall effectuate an eviction, ejectment, or other displacement from a residence based upon the failure to make a rent, loan, or other similar payment. On April 28, 2020, the Court further extended the temporary ban on evictions until May 11, 2020. UPDATE: On May 7, 2020, the Governor signed an executive order extending the moratorium on evictions until July 10, 2020. The Governor reiterated that rent and mortgage payments are still due to be paid during this period but urged landlords to work with their tenants., at which time the statewide suspension of procedures related to evictions shall end. Simply stated, all residential evictions are stayed until May 11, 2020. Additionally, on March 27, 2020, President Trump signed into law the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (the “CARES Act”), which, in some cases, grants tenants greater protection, as set forth in more detail below. On April 24, 2020, the Lancaster County Court of Common Pleas issued its own Order extending the judicial emergency in our local court until May 31, 2020, but this Order does not explicitly address eviction proceedings.
Landlords should also be aware that Pennsylvania law prohibits self-help evictions in which landlords attempt to evict tenants by changing the locks or cutting off essential utilities such as water, heat or electricity for a tenant’s failure to pay rent. During a pandemic-caused stay-at-home order, courts will likely also consider cable and internet essential utilities. Any attempt by a landlord to take any of these measures will most likely constitute harassment in debt collection matters, which is a violation of the Pennsylvania Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Law and federal and state debt collection statutes. Additionally, on March 13, 2020, the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission issued an emergency order prohibiting utilities from terminating water, electric, natural gas, telecommunication (TV, phone and internet), sewer, and streaming services. This prohibition will remain in place for as long as the disaster proclamation remains in effect.
Section 4024 of the CARES Act imposes an additional 120-day ban on evictions, but only applies to “covered dwellings,” which include those dwellings on or in “covered properties.” Section 4024(a). The Act defines a “covered property” as a property that: (1) participates in a “covered housing program” as defined by the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) (as amended through the 2013 reauthorization); (2) participates in the “rural housing voucher program under section 542 of the Housing Act of 1949;” (3) has a federally backed mortgage loan; or (4) has a federally backed multifamily mortgage loan. See Section 4024(a)(2). The prohibition on certain evictions under the CARES Act differs from the temporary ban on evictions under the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s Order in several ways. For example, the CARES Act prohibition only relates to evictions based on nonpayment default, it prohibits landlords from charging fees or other penalties relating to nonpayment of rent, and it prohibits landlords from requiring a non-paying tenant to vacate sooner than 150 days after the CARES Act’s effective date or thirty days after a notice to vacate is served, whichever is later.
What is a landlord permitted to do? The Court’s Order prohibiting evictions during the pandemic does not restrict a landlord from sending and serving tenants with the required notices in order to initiate formal eviction proceedings once the temporary ban is lifted. The Order is also silent as to whether a landlord can assess late fees or interest on missed or late rent payments. However, some guidance has been provided by Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro in a letter he wrote to landlords on March 30, 2020 in which he strongly encouraged them to extend the temporary ban on evictions beyond the Supreme Court’s Order to allow extra time for tenants to recover from this crisis.
It is important to note that while Attorney General Shapiro’s letter is only advisory, landlords are cautioned that the Attorney General’s Office is the governing body which investigates and prosecutes violations of the Pennsylvania Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Law and state debt collection statutes.
What Does This Mean For You? During this time of crisis, landlords are prohibited from evicting tenants. Failure to do so could result in running afoul of Pennsylvania’s Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Law and federal and state debt collection statutes, which may lead to the imposition of severe fines and potentially the loss of rental licenses. Even when evictions are permitted once again, landlords are encouraged to follow Attorney General Shapiro’s guidance and to work with their tenants where possible.
If you have any questions regarding changes to the landlord/tenant law during the COVID-19 pandemic, please contact Todd P. Kriner at email@example.com or 717-509-7219.
**This update is provided for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice or as creating an attorney-client relationship where one does not already exist. This article was published on April 27, 2020 and updated on May 11, 2020. Please be aware that the laws and regulations related to the COVID-19 pandemic are being updated rapidly. Please check back or contact us for the most up-to-date information.**