Wolf extends statewide disaster proclamation, eviction moratorium expires as advocates call for action

  • Sam Dunklau

(Harrisburg) — Gov. Tom Wolf renewed a statewide disaster declaration Monday as the coronavirus pandemic enters its sixth month.

For the next 90 days, public rules on masks and social distancing, as well as relaxed rules on unemployment insurance and professional certification will remain in place.

“We are going to continue to combat the health and economic effects of COVID-19, and the renewal of my disaster declaration will provide us with resources and support needed for this effort,” Wolf said in a statement.

As has been the case since March, Pennsylvanians who need unemployment insurance won’t have to jump through as many hoops. In normal circumstances, anyone who applies for that program has to wait a week after applying and prove to the state they’re looking for work while receiving weekly payments, among other things.

Under the renewed disaster declaration, training and certification requirements will remain suspended for healthcare workers and other essential professions that provide “life-sustaining services…to vulnerable residents.”

There’s one notable exception to what’s being extended: the moratorium on rental evictions. That was authorized under a different executive order and expired at midnight on Monday.

It’s received a lot of attention in recent weeks because housing advocates say without more help from the state, people who have struggled to pay rent during the pandemic risk eviction. Data from Princeton University’s Eviction Lab show more than 3.4 million people rent in Pennsylvania, and says evictions “could surge because the moratorium has lapsed.”

The governor’s legal team says there’s nothing more Wolf can do on the issue — noting the legislature will have to approve another measure to stave off evictions.

While the governor has publicly called on lawmakers to take action, the Republican majority in both chambers said the administration hasn’t directly reached out to them.

Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman said the governor is “playing politics with people’s lives.”

“He talks a good game in front of the media about working together, but he has not spoken directly with Republican legislative leaders since July,” Corman said in a statement.

“Senate Republicans remain committed to continuing to work to make changes to ensure the programs under the CARES Act are helping those who need rental assistance and will see what – if any – options we have when it comes to evictions.”

Jason Gottesman, the House Republican spokesperson, argued the difficult situation renters might find themselves in is of the governor’s making.

“Gov. Wolf has ignored the law and acted by fiat for the last six months. It is curious now that he is searching for the limits of his authority as an excuse to pass the buck to the General Assembly over the crisis he created for both property owners and renters,” Gottesman said.

The GOP is expected to focus on other issues as lawmakers reconvene at the Capitol this week, including changes to the election code and authorizing spending of Pa.’s remaining CARES Act money totaling $1.3 billion.

But advocates and experts said they’re worried about the consequences for renters if the commonwealth does nothing to extend emergency assistance.

The Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency had been administering the rental and mortgage assistance program before it expired. Director Robin Wiessmann said 28 percent of Pa. renters are low-income, and there’s already an affordable housing shortage.

Both of those facts lay bare issues that could be made worse by eviction.

“We all have an interest in housing security, because this is not good for Pennsylvania’s economic recovery,” Wiessmann said at a Tuesday press conference.

Jesus Rodriguez, a man who’s worked in Pa. for 20 years, joined Wiessman and others at the podium. He said he’s several months behind on his rent, but despite talking about the situation with his landlord, he’s still facing eviction over his missed payments.

“We don’t have more time. The time has come for both parties to reach an agreement to avoid the housing crisis that threatens our state and our families,” Rodriguez said through a translator.

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