As we sit here today in the fall of 2021, COVID-19 has been a part of our daily lives for nearly 1.5 years. During that time, we have seen changes to business operations, restaurants, and schools. One significant change during the course of the pandemic has been the landlord-relationship and the ability of a landlord to evict a tenant for non-payment of rent.
The Landlord-Tenant Act of 1951 (68 Pa. C.S. §250.101 et seq.) governs the Landlord-Tenant relationship between parties to a residential lease in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Under the Act, a tenant is provided with certain rights and obligations, and so is the landlord. The most basic principle of the landlord-tenant relationship is that the landlord will provide housing, and the tenant will pay monthly rent for that housing. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) turned this principle on its head.
Throughout the pandemic, both landlords and tenants paid close attention to the Pennsylvania Governor Orders and Orders from the CDC. Rights on both sides were impacted, most notably by a series of eviction moratoriums. To prevent the further spread of COVID-19 in the Delta variant’s wake, the CDC recently extended its moratorium (set to expire on two previous occasions) until October 3, 2021. This moratorium has since been ruled unconstitutional by the United States Supreme Court on August 26, 2021. 1
What did the latest moratorium provide for?
The biggest change in the extended CDC moratorium was applicability. The order was limited to counties with “substantial and high levels of community transmission.” Across the United States, the CDC Data Tracker provides an integrated view for every county in the country, classifying each as low, medium, substantial, or high.
At the time this article was written, two-thirds of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties were listed at substantial or high levels of transmission. The CDC order noted that if a county crosses the transmission threshold, it is then subject to the order effective on that date. Additionally, if a county that was covered by the order no longer experiences substantial or high transmission levels for fourteen (14) consecutive days, the order no longer applies unless the criteria are met at a later date.
What options did the moratorium provide for tenants?
If a tenant wished to remain in their rental despite non-payment of rent, they were directed to complete a declaration stating, inter alia, that they were unable to pay rent, attempted to obtain government assistance for rent or housing, met certain income requirements, has a substantial loss of household income and have made their best efforts to pay. In practice, the Courts halted nearly all evictions for non-payment of rent without a completed declaration.
What options did the moratorium provide for landlords?
Landlords were precluded from evicting tenants for non-payment of rent. If a tenant violated the lease with a non-monetary breach, the Court would allow the eviction hearing to proceed. Landlords were also directed to work with the tenant to make applications under the CARES Act for funds to cover missed rental payments. Some landlords received no rental payments during the course of moratoriums.
It is important to note that while tenants could not be evicted during the moratorium, rental payments remained due and owing. Landlords may now seek full repayment of all missed rental payments.
What were the penalties for violating the moratorium?
If a landlord violated the moratorium, they would find themselves subject to high penalties, which included fines up to $250,000 and jail time up to one (1) year.
What did the Supreme Court have to say about this?
A group of realtors from Alabama argued the CDC had exceeded their authority in instituting the aforesaid eviction moratoriums. The Plaintiffs in the case sought a judgment vacating the moratorium on the ground that it was unlawful. The Court opined that “The CDC has imposed a nationwide moratorium on evictions in reliance on a decades-old statute that authorizes it to implement measures like fumigation and pest-extermination. It strains credulity to believe that this statute grants the CDC the sweeping authority that is asserted.” Further, the Court found that “The equities do not justify depriving applicants of the District Court’s judgment in their favor. The moratorium has put applicants, along with millions of landlords across the county, at risk of irreparable harm by depriving them of rent payments with no guarantee of eventual recovery.”
Accordingly, the United States Supreme Court issued a Decision on August 26, 2021, finding the moratorium unenforceable. There is no longer any enforceable moratorium in place.