Landlords are eager to collect unpaid rent and repossess their property, but with the CDC’s eviction moratorium in place, what can landlords collect, and when?
In May, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf entered an executive order preventing owners of residential properties from evicting their tenants for the tenants’ failure to timely pay their rent. Though renters were never permitted to permanently withhold rent payments, the executive order also permitted renters to delay making month-to-month payments while they navigated the COVID-19 pandemic. Governor Wolf extended the provisions originally set forth in the executive order through July 10, and again through August 31.
However, landlords in Pennsylvania could not resume eviction efforts even after Governor Wolf’s executive order expired on August 31. On September 4, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) entered its own order under Section 361 of the Public Health Service Act which placed a nationwide eviction moratorium on residential tenants effective when tenants submit to their landlords a document known as a “CDC Declaration.” The CDC’s order, which aims to prevent the further spread of COVID-19, will not expire until December 31, 2020.
With the prohibition on evictions lasting throughout the calendar year, landlords are undoubtedly anxious to reclaim possession of their rental properties. And though previously unable to collect owed money due to the Pennsylvania moratorium eviction, many landlords are eager to reclaim unpaid rent needed to pay the mortgages, taxes, and utilities on those rental properties.
So what is a landlord entitled to recover once the eviction moratorium expires?
Landlords can actually seek out monetary judgments at this time—the CDC’s order prohibits landlords from evicting tenants throughout December 31. Both Governor Wolf’s executive Order and the CDC’s order do not eliminate the tenant’s obligation to pay rent (though the Pennsylvania moratorium eviction permitted tenants to delay payments). That said, landlords can collect any monthly payments the tenant agreed to make in the lease, including all back rents and (if applicable) utilities. The CDC eviction moratorium merely prohibits landlords from repossessing their property.
What happens if the tenant cannot pay rent after the eviction moratorium expires?
If the tenant cannot pay his rent, but is still bound to several months’ of rent payments, a prudent landlord should inquire what payment the tenant can make. Landlords and tenants are always free to renegotiate the terms of the lease. Agreements to stagger payments of outstanding debts, such as a structured payment plan, can be viable alternatives to litigation. If litigation ensues, it's best to talk with a real estate lawyer for advice. And, in some cases, agreeing to release a tenant from part or all his lease obligations can be mutually beneficial: the tenant avoids increasing debt from unpaid rent, and the landlord can re-let his property to paying tenants.
What happens if a landlord and a tenant cannot agree on renegotiation of payment?
Under these circumstances, landlords should begin eviction proceedings and would be wise to see the assistance of a real estate attorney.
Not all situations, however, can be resolved. Again, many landlords have gone several months without receiving rent income, and may have no choice but to move on from tenants incapable of meeting their lease commitments. Under these circumstances, landlords should begin eviction proceedings and would be wise to see the assistance of a landlord-tenant attorney. Again, landlords should be mindful that they cannot evict tenants throughout December 31 if the tenant has submitted a CDC Declaration.
What is needed to start the process of tenant eviction?
The first step in an eviction proceeding is the issuance of a “Notice to Quit” letter. The Notice to Quit acts as a formal notification from the landlord to the tenant indicating the landlord’s intent to remove the tenant from the property.
How many days in advance must a Notice to Quit letter be given before eviction?
If the eviction is based on the tenant’s non-payment of rent, the Notice to Quit letter must give the tenant 10 days notice of the eviction. However, a tenant can waive his right to be served with a Notice to Quit, and such a waiver is often contained within the lease.
Can a landlord change the locks or otherwise engage in “self-help” on a tenant who hasn’t paid rent?
Landlords should also know that they cannot engage in self-help to carry out an eviction. This has been the law before the COVID-19 pandemic began, and will continue whether or not the eviction moratorium extends throughout 2021. In other words, in the absence of a court order, landlords cannot change the locks on their property to coerce delinquent tenants to leave, nor can they hire a locksmith to do so. Rather, if the tenant remains in possession of the property after the period detailed in the Notice to Quit, a landlord must obtain an eviction judgment from the relevant court.
How does a landlord get an eviction judgement in Pennsylvania?
Typically, to get that eviction judgment in Pennsylvania, the landlord must file a Complaint with the Magisterial District Court that lies in the same jurisdiction where the rental property is located. That Complaint should request that the Magisterial District Court Judge enter an order for possession in the landlord’s favor as well as a monetary judgment against the tenant for all back rent and court costs. In addition to possession and back rent, the landlord can also request judgment for any new rent that will become due at the time of the hearing, and if the lease permits it, unpaid utilities and attorneys’ fees.
The Court will then schedule a hearing at some later date, at which time the landlord (or the landlord’s attorney) will argue before a Magisterial District Court Judge as to why he is entitled to the relief demanded in the Complaint.
However, the Magisterial District Court will only hear a case when a landlord demands less than $12,000.00 in damages. In light of the protracted eviction moratorium—which will have lasted over eight months by the time the CDC’s order expires on December 31—it is not uncommon for a landlord to claim substantially more than $12,000.00 in back rent, attorneys’ fees, outstanding utility payments, and other potential damages. In this case, the landlord cannot file a Complaint with the Magisterial District Court and instead must look to the local Court of Common Pleas for relief. Cases heard before the Court of Common Pleas can take several months to litigate—much longer than those matters heard in the Magisterial District Court level. That said, a landlord owed a significant balance but more interested in obtaining possession may take advantage of the expedited litigation provided by the Magisterial District Court and agree to cap monetary damages at $12,000.00.
Can a tenant appeal an eviction?
Even if a judge grants an order for possession and other relief in the landlord’s favor, the landlord must wait 10 days before he can file the order for possession. During this 10 day period, the tenant can appeal the judge’s decision. If 10 days pass with no appeal, the landlord can then file and serve the order for possession, but a sheriff or constable will not initiate the eviction until another 10 days after service of the order for possession has passed. During this period, which can last several weeks, if the tenant can come up with enough money to satisfy the monetary judgment and the landlord’s costs in obtaining the order for possession before the constable or sheriff can initiate the eviction, then the tenant may continue to posses the property. (This benefit to the tenant, known as the right to “pay and stay,” is available only when the tenant faces eviction for non-payment of rent.)
Can a landlord evict a tenant for other reasons during the pandemic?
The above information outlines the landlord’s options due to a tenant’s non-payment of rent. The CDC’s order does not prevent landlords from commencing eviction proceedings for other reasons, such as when a tenant engages in criminal activity, destroys property, or otherwise violates provisions in the lease or building code. Under these circumstances, there may be different notice requirements that the landlord must adhere to prior to evicting, and the timeframes set forth in a Notice to Quit are different than in a non-payment of rent matter.
What, exactly, a landlord may recover depends on what he and the tenant agreed to in the lease. An aggrieved landlord should contact a landlord-tenant attorney to review the lease and get a better understanding of what he is entitled to after the eviction moratorium ends.