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Courts, representatives plan end to eviction ban

Pennsylvania lawmakers in Washington have signed on to reverse a federal eviction moratorium, just as the Supreme Court allows one more month before a potential wave of evictions begins.

U.S. Rep. Fred Keller, R-12th District, and Rep. Scott Perry, R-10th District, are cosponsoring a bill to reverse the eviction ban, first ordered by the Centers for Disease Control in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic.

“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has overstepped its constitutional authority by issuing the order,” the bill’s supporters, all Republicans, said. “This legislation attempts to restore the rights of property owners who have been unconstitutionally impacted by the halt on residential evictions by lifting the order and preventing its reimplementation.”

The moratorium has helped delay a feared surge in evictions after the pandemic battered the economy. Hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvanians have told the U.S. Census Bureau they’re behind on rent or face eviction soon, but groups representing property owners and landlords say the delay has gone on long enough.

Those pushing to reverse the order are pursuing both legislation and judicial rulings. Groups representing Realtors challenged the order in the courts, taking the fight to the U.S. Supreme Court this week.

“In (making the order), the CDC shifted the pandemic’s financial burdens from the nation’s 30 to 40 million renters to its 10 to 11 million landlords — most of whom, like applicants, are individuals and small businesses — resulting in over $13 billion in unpaid rent per month,” they said in a court filing.

The nation’s highest court ruled Tuesday that the moratorium can continue until July 31, when it is set to expire. But the narrow 5-4 vote came with a warning: In a concurrence, Justice Brett Kavanaugh suggested he would not repeat the ruling, and noted that the final weeks will allow officials to distribute needed rental assistance.

Some states and municipalities have moved to extend their own eviction bans, creating a potential patchwork of rental policies across the country. Pennsylvania renter activists and tenant unions have called for extensions and new protections as the deadline looms.

It’s not only renters that could face renewed pressure this summer. A similar moratorium on home foreclosures is set to expire by August, although federal officials are drafting rules that could make it harder to force people from their homes after the deadline.

“We have never before seen this many borrowers so far behind on their mortgages,” Consumer Financial Protection Bureau head Dave Uejio told the New York Times this week.

The dual crises — evictions and foreclosures — have pushed federal and state officials to get relief money into residents’ hands. Congress approved billions of rental assistance during the pandemic, but states have reported delays in distributing the funds.

With a skeptical Supreme Court and members of Congress pushing for the moratorium to end, they may have little time left.

Dems try Round 2 on cocktail bill

A group of state senators is moving to grant new freedoms to restaurant owners — including the sale of to-go cocktails — after a similar effort crashed and burned last month.

Three Democratic state senators circulated a memo this week indicating they’ll propose a “clean” version of a bill that would have allowed restaurants to sell more drinks, including outside.

The seemingly minor policy change has major implications, and pitted Gov. Tom Wolf and a state labor union against GOP lawmakers.

State officials allowed restaurants to sell cocktails to-go during the pandemic, when indoor dining was strictly limited. The association representing tavern owners praised the policy and called for the change to be written into law.

That nearly happened last month, with both chambers of the General Assembly passing a bill to make the policy permanent. GOP lawmakers then tweaked it, however, to allow supermarkets and other retail stores to sell canned cocktails — drinks currently offered at state-owned liquor stores.

That late change drew opposition from United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1776, the union that represents liquor store workers. After a GOP-initiated ballot initiative took away Wolf’s pandemic emergency powers, state officials reversed the temporary policy and the bill stalled out — leaving restaurants in a worse position than before.

Now, a trio of Democratic lawmakers is moving to go back to the start, with a “clean” bill that would make changes only for restaurants. Whether their GOP colleagues will accept the plan remains to be seen.

“The hospitality industry has been decimated over the past 15 months,” the sponsors wrote. “We hope you will join us in cosponsoring this legislation to help local bars and restaurants get back on their feet again after a year of immense hardship.”

Ryan Brown covers statewide politics for Ogden Newspapers, owner of the Williamsport Sun-Gazette.

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