By Vincent Montoya-Armanios
On Friday, June 17, Legal Aid of Southeastern PA Managing Attorney Joshua Goldblum issued an open letter to President Judge Bateman requesting a stay of eviction proceedings for individuals with pending Bucks Emergency Rental Assistance (BERA) applications. The federal eviction moratorium (which many anticipate will not be extended) is set to expire on June 30. At that time, the courts are likely to begin executing eviction orders unless Judge Bateman accepts Legal Aid’s recommendations.
Bucks County received $56 million in rental assistance in 2021 to compensate landlords for lost revenue and to halt evictions during the ongoing economic chaos and public health crisis. It’s unclear how many BERA applications have been successfully processed thus far. Last year, the majority of applications for rental assistance were rejected and millions in funds were returned into the general budget where they were used primarily to fund the Department of Corrections.
Here is the worst-case (and increasingly likely) scenario: tenants with pending applications for rental assistance will be evicted before their applications are processed. The funds that would have gone to landlords and covered some or all of the back-rent is returned to the state. Landlords remain uncompensated and pass on the costs to other renters or fail to pay their mortgages. An eviction record can make it difficult for a tenant to find new housing, leading to cascading bouts of joblessness, illness, abuse, and so on.
Goldblum writes, “there will be unjust consequences if this court fails to issue [the recommended order]. Failure to plug this gap created by the termination of the CDC moratorium will result in hundreds of evictions at enormous cost to tenants, landlords, the county, and the public at large—a disaster that is totally avoidable at minimal cost.”
To avoid the doomsday scenario, Goldblum proposes that tenants be protected from eviction until their applications are processed. Under his proposal, tenants with eviction actions against them would receive rental relief information. Upon submission of a rental relief application, their case would be stayed for 60 days so that BERA has time for review. Once the 60-day period expires or the application is denied (whichever comes first), the eviction action may proceed.
Procedurally, Goldblum argues that Judge Bateman has the authority to execute the proposal under Rule of Judicial Administration No. 1952, which was issued by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Goldblum explains that the rule gives each judicial district the power to take “appropriate measures… to safeguard the health and safety of court personnel, court users, and members of the public.” Judge Bateman has used this authority on multiple occasions in the past 15 months to stay evictions throughout courts in the 7th Judicial District (which comprises all courts in Bucks County). “We are requesting that Your Honor use this same authority to issue the limited, temporary stay of evictions that we are proposing,” Goldblum writes.
On Thursday, June 24, Bucks Tenant Solidarity, a renters’ rights and tenant organizing group (of which I am a member), will be holding a demonstration at the Justice Center 100 North Main in Doylestown at 7 PM in support of staying eviction proceedings