When Landlord Tenant Court reopened for the first time in the new year, up to 100 people found themselves packed into a courtroom roughly the size of a 7-Eleven.
Some mothers cradled their children in chairs, while others stood because there were no more chairs to be had. Landlords and tenants, young and elderly, awkwardly tried to maintain social distance as they waited to be summoned for their case.
Coronavirus cases were reaching record highs - and yet the courtroom was more crowded than it had been in two years.
"There wasn't anywhere to stand where you weren't standing within a foot of somebody," said Peter Valle, an attorney at the Legal Clinic for the Disabled who was there last Monday. "It's probably the most crowded place I've been since the pandemic."
Court schedules indicate the First Judicial District returned Jan. 3 to a pre-pandemic process for hearing disputes between landlords and tenants, often revolving around thousands in unpaid rent.
Last year, the court relied heavily on Zoom meetings and staggering in-person hearings to avoid overcrowding. But it reverted to a pre-pandemic schedule to kick off 2022, summoning parties for each case en masse ahead of morning and afternoon sessions.
Hearing safety concerns from court-goers, court officials told The Inquirer they plan to reduce the number of in-person cases at Landlord Tenant Court by about 65% within two weeks, offering more teleconference hearings instead.
While the overcrowding has declined since early last week, the sardine-can courtroom is a symptom of larger problems that advocates fear will escalate in the year ahead: The courts are backlogged with cases, cash for emergency rental assistance is nearly dry, and eviction filings are on the rise.
According to data compiled by the Eviction Lab, a Princeton University-based project that monitors eviction proceedings, Philadelphia saw over 300 new eviction cases filed in the first full week of the year - the highest volume since the pandemic began. It's also a sharp increase from the months when the eviction moratorium ended in October, where landlords filed about 40% of their typical number of cases.
Carl Gershenson, project director at the Eviction Lab, said Philadelphia's rental assistance and diversion programs helped delay the tide of new eviction filings, compared with other cities.
"The numbers everywhere are going up," Gershenson said. "Now that the aid is running out, there's undoubtedly a strong upward trajectory."
Fears about a nationwide eviction "tsunami" gained steam as eviction moratoriums came to an end last year, but Gershenson said much of the speculation was based on exaggerated estimates, with some think tanks projecting as many as 40 million Americans at risk of eviction once the moratoriums lapsed.
That said, legal evictions do not happen overnight, and it could take months to know the true scope of the crisis.
With the current backlog of cases, Gershenson said it's unlikely Philadelphia's court could process more than the 20,000 eviction proceedings typically filed each year, meaning that an eviction spike, if any, might play out over a long period of time. Landlord groups tell their members the average case can take more than six months to resolve.
Philadelphia has extended its nationally renowned eviction diversion program for another year. Researchers and advocates credit the program with preventing a flood of displacements. Under the current system, landlords cannot seek eviction for nonpayment before attending a mediation session with tenants and applying for rental assistance.
But the city's cash aid for renters - more than $250 million disbursed to nearly 40,000 households since 2020 - is nearly gone. Officials stopped accepting new applications for the program last week, stoking fears among both tenants and landlords.
The current eviction diversion program can continue only as long as the city has enough rental assistance available. Officials have asked for $485 million in additional federal funds and said they would revamp the program if the money doesn't materialize.
Greg Wertman, president of Hapco Philadelphia, which represents many of the city's small and midsize landlords, said the funds have been a blessing. "I've told everyone, 'Go get the money,' " Wertman said.
Landlord groups worked with lawmakers last year to expedite what they describe as burdensome processes that slowed the eviction process. Changes include reducing the required time between mediation and eviction from 45 days to 30 days. Landlords will also be able to post resolution offers to their tenants online, which could help avoid mediation altogether.
Still, some landlords have not been paid in years. And short of more money, eviction cases will likely continue to increase.
"The courts are the courts, we can't control how they pack a room," said Andre del Valle, director of government affairs at the Pennsylvania Apartment Association. "Our landlords don't want to go through this process. They don't want to create instability. But this is the result of the failure of programs meant to cover both parties."
Martin O'Rourke, spokesperson for the First Judicial District, said the courts will grant extensions to any subpoenaed tenant who requests to hold their hearing remotely until Jan. 23.
"Requests for continuances are being liberally granted," O'Rourke said, adding that 98% of the court staff is vaccinated.