'An explosion in calls': As evictions return, more volunteers needed for Landlord-Tenant Hotline
Driven by a rise in eviction filings, a local landlord-tenant hotline which assists people facing evictions and other housing issues is seeking more volunteers.
Since the end of pandemic-related eviction moratoriums and the end of the county’s rental assistance program earlier this year, eviction filings have mostly returned to their pre-pandemic levels, according to data gathered by Anne Wright of Carnegie Mellon University’s CREATE Lab.
“Since the pandemic and really since the end of [Emergency Rental Assistance] funding, we have seen an explosion in calls,” said Antoinette Oliver of law firm Meyer, Unkovic and Scott. “Where we would get 10 or 15 calls a week, we have over 50 calls a week.”
The Landlord-Tenant Hotline is staffed by a rotating group of roughly 30 volunteer attorneys and eight paralegals, she said.
Those in need of aid can call the hotline at 412-402-6660 and leave a voicemail; a volunteer attorney will return their call within 48 hours. Callers often have emergency situations, such as needing to file an appeal immediately or a court hearing the following day.
Attorneys typically do not accompany people to court but can give advice about what documents they need to bring, what arguments they can make, and will make sure tenants are aware of important deadlines to appeal.
Calls mostly are about eviction cases, but sometimes involve other housing issues, like mold, utility problems, or other habitability issues.
“People, in my experience, frequently ask for help trying to understand how much time they have before ... the door to their apartment can be locked, how much time they have to resolve a judgment against them, and also maybe how much time they have to appeal,” said Joshua Stein, a volunteer and attorney at Argo AI.
The hotline fills an important role for anyone in need of help in a housing case. Unlike in a criminal case, where people who cannot afford an attorney are still entitled to one, there is no right to have an attorney in civil cases, such as landlord-tenant proceedings.
A study of local evictions released last year by The Pittsburgh Foundation found that in 95% of landlord–tenant cases studied, neither side has legal representation. (The same study found landlords won about 85% of cases; tenants won fewer than 2%, the remaining cases were mostly settled or withdrawn.) Oliver said the hotline will assist anyone who qualifies based on its income guidelines, though that tends to typically be tenants and not landlords.
The volunteer-staffed hotline is often the first place tenants turn.
“Making sure that this project is properly staffed, making sure that folks are giving quality advice is of the utmost importance,” said Adam DiBuo, managing attorney of the Housing Division at Neighborhood Legal Services. Attorneys from Neighborhood Legal Services train the hotline volunteers.
Advocates say they are alarmed by the level of eviction filings, because both the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh and the Allegheny County Housing Authority – two of the county’s largest providers of affordable housing who were prolific eviction case filers prior to the pandemic – have not resumed filing eviction cases yet.
“It's a really important obligation that we have to make sure that we're available and advising people. Which is why dealing with this increased call volume has been so stressful, because we want to make sure that we can keep lawyers volunteering for this,” Oliver said.
Volunteers say they are proud of the work the hotline does, though the fact that it is staffed entirely by volunteers raises larger systemic issues about the legal help that is available to people in need.
“I think we've got a lot of volunteers who are trying to stand in the gap and who are really providing valuable counsel,” said Nick Oliver, associate general counsel at Alcoa Corporation. “But it is something that would be much better served by people having access to, you know, full time paid lawyers who could take a case on and see it through to the end.”
If you need help with a housing case, call 412-402-6660. If you are an attorney interested in volunteering, you can call 412-402-6660 or go to https://nlsa.us/volunteer/. Lawyers who do not have a background in landlord-tenant law will receive training.