‘Lawyer of the Day’ helps tenants facing eviction in 4 Pittsburgh District Courts
It’s just after 9 a.m. on a recent weekday, and people are slowly trickling into Magisterial District Judge Oscar Petite Jr.’s court in the Hill District.
There’s more than a dozen eviction cases on the docket today.
In the waiting area are two legal aid attorneys and a paralegal, wielding yellow legal pads and laptop computers, asking people their names.
They’re here as part of a legal assistance program known as “Lawyer of the Day,” funded mostly by Pittsburgh’s Housing Opportunity Fund through the Urban Redevelopment Authority. The program sends attorneys and social service navigators in person to four different Magisterial District Courts in the city.
In addition to District Judge Petite’s courtroom, which hears cases from the Hill District, Downtown, and parts of the Strip District, the program is also funding attorneys and social service workers in three other District Courts in the North Side and Homewood.
On this day, the attorneys are from Neighborhood Legal Services, but there are also attorneys from Ebony Law and Community Justice Project who are part of the program. (Cases can also be referred to Just Mediation Pittsburgh.)
Having attorneys there in person is key, the program’s backers say; tenants in eviction cases typically don’t have lawyers representing them. (Because landlord-tenant cases are civil matters, poor defendants aren’t entitled to free legal representation, as defendants are in criminal cases.) A 2021 study by The Pittsburgh Foundation found that in almost all the landlord–tenant cases it studied, neither the landlord nor the tenant had legal representation. (The study found landlords won about 85% of cases; tenants won fewer than 2%, the remaining cases were mostly settled or withdrawn.)
Also crucial, however, is the pairing of the legal help with “navigators” from RentHelpPGH, who can explain to tenants what aid is available from various local social services to help them pay back rent they owe. (While millions of dollars in federal Covid-related rental aid is mostly gone, there is still some other assistance available for tenants on the verge of eviction.)
Local eviction filings have mostly returned to pre-pandemic levels.
On this day in District Judge Petite’s court, the landlords are almost all large, subsidized housing providers.
One tenant owes nearly $3,000 to her landlord.
“What’s the game plan here?” Petite asks her attorney.
The tenant has applied for two different kinds of aid in order to pay back the months of rent she owes, her attorney tells the judge.
“I’ve just been trying to keep my head above water,” since losing her job in August, she says.
Because she has applied for help, both the judge and her landlord agree to give her 30 more days to come up with the funds.
Petite says even though cases tend to take longer under Lawyer of the Day, he’s happy to see tenants helped and landlords get paid.
“I'm glad that these services are in place and I'm glad that Neighborhood Legal Services is involved because it makes navigating through this process a lot easier, particularly for tenants who just may not be able to do it themselves,” he said.
During one case last week, when one tenant said she thought she didn’t need an attorney, the judge said he thought she should reconsider.
“You got a free lawyer, I don’t care what situation you are in, you take it,” he advised her.