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Tenant Cities: One Day In Allegheny County's Eviction Hotspot

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Jay Manning
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PublicSource
Happiness Nyirenda, a tenant of The Alden South Hills who is the defendant in an eviction case filed by the landlord, prepares to go to her job as a certified nurse assistant, helping seniors. She was behind in her rent by $785 when her landlord filed.

A year after the COVID-19 pandemic changed the rules for landlords and tenants, the eviction capital of the county is deep in the suburbs, where tenants of one apartment complex are scrambling to avoid ejection.

At a picnic table on Wolfe Drive, near the Baldwin Borough Public Library, 10:47 a.m., March 3

Happiness Nyirenda needs to be at work at noon. She can’t afford to lose any more pay.

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On this sunny March morning, there’s a cloud on her financial horizon — one she shares with scores of tenants in The Alden South Hills apartment complex, which sprawls below the library.

A winter of car trouble and COVID-19 put her behind on rent. Despite federal and local curbs on evictions, the complex’s owner filed a Landlord and Tenant Complaint against her — an eviction case. On March 15, she’s due before District Judge Ralph Kaiser for a Recovery of Real Property Hearing. That’s legalese for: The landlord wants you out.

Truth be told, she’d like to move. Her one-bedroom apartment is always hot – “super uncomfortable,” she says – and the $644 in rent, not including utilities and various fees, seems high. But finding a new place might be tough.

“So what I’m worried about most now is that my name has an eviction record, and I’m trying to get out of here," Nyirenda says. Other landlords may turn her down.

Landlords now control around 37% of the housing market countywide. COVID-19 is testing the health of this market, bringing eviction curbs, rent relief and a revived tenants’ rights movement. PublicSource and WESA are exploring these changes and examining the governmental and civic responses to the emergence of Tenant Cities.

The Alden, run by Philadelphia-based multi-state landlord Aion Management, is Allegheny County's eviction hotspot. This diverse suburban complex of 1,050 apartments, within otherwise homeowner-dominated Baldwin Borough, has seen 111 eviction cases since COVID arrived, according to according to data assembled by Anne Wright, chief technology officer of RentHelpPGH and a project scientist at the Carnegie Mellon University's CREATE Lab.

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Credit Jay Manning / PublicSource
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PublicSource
Happiness Nyirenda sits at a picnic bench near The Alden South Hills for an interview with reporters from WESA and PublicSource.

In January and February, the landlord filed a total of 37 eviction cases.

While it makes up 0.5% of the county’s rental units, The Alden accounts for nearly 4% of the pandemic-era eviction cases in Allegheny County.

The eviction filings reflect "residents who have ignored our inquiries, have ignored our phone calls, have ignored our emails, and we're trying to get them on track," says Robin Flagler, president of Aion, in a Monday interview. "We have over $500,000 of outstanding rents at The Alden. It's a lot of money to collect."

PublicSource and WESA spent March 3 with five Alden tenants who face eviction. All were less than two months behind on rent. Some documented ongoing, partial payments.

Nyirenda, an immigrant from Malawi who lives alone, is a full-time certified nurse assistant [CNA] who moved to The Alden in June.

Late last year, car trouble compelled her to stop moonlighting for Lyft, and she fell behind on rent. The landlord added $265 in “attorney fees” to her bill, so she borrowed from a friend to pay $785 on Christmas Day. On New Year’s Day, she was diagnosed with COVID-19, and during a month of illness, she lost pay and burned all of her time off. She paid $500 toward her rent debt on Jan. 15. The landlord filed to evict two weeks later, saying she still owed $785. She took unpaid time off for a Feb. 11 hearing – only to find that it was postponed.

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PublicSource
Javar Wilson returns to the building from which The Alden’s landlord seeks to evict him. He said he withheld rent due to a pest problem.

If she gets to testify before Kaiser, she’ll show him the ledger proving her partial, late, but persistent rent payments. She wonders if she can convince the judge to remove the eviction filing from her record – something that is not currently possible under state law

She knows many of her neighbors — including other immigrants — are struggling, and have little means to fight. “We can’t afford an attorney, let alone we can’t afford our rent.”

Outside the vestibule of an apartment building on Youngridge Drive, 11:48 a.m.

Javar Wilson pops out of the building in which he has a basement apartment. He’s expected at the beer distributor, where he works, in 42 minutes. He shakes off a March 15 eviction hearing with the presumption of invincibility that his 23 years allows.

"It’s a part of growing up, so I can’t be too upset about it," he says. And when a prospective future landlord sees the case on his record? "Hopefully they’ll ask me questions about why that’s on my record, but if not, I just have to take that one on the chin."

If asked, he’ll talk about unspecified “pests … I’ve caught them inside of the apartment and outside of the apartment,” he says. After repeat complaints, he told Aion that he would put his rent money into an escrow account, pending effective extermination, he says. On Jan. 29 the landlord filed an eviction complaint saying he was behind by $899.

Flagler says she can’t discuss specific tenants’ situations. She says that if tenants "show us proof that [their rent is] in escrow, we certainly wouldn't file on them," but added that some "say, 'I put it in escrow,' and they never did."

She added that the company has “worked on housekeeping issues and pest control issues and trash issues” since it took over three years ago.

The Alden used to be called Green Meadows, then Leland Point. In 2010, it was in crisis.

That year, Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. decided that Leland Point was so unsafe and unkempt that it warranted the filing of a criminal complaint against the ownership group, which was settled. Foreclosure followed, then the sale of the complex for $9.9 million.

Wilson says Aion eventually sent an effective exterminator, and he has gone months without seeing “pests.” He says he can cover the rent and court fees. But he wishes it hadn’t come to an eviction filing. “I shouldn’t have to be going through all of this.”

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Donald Megginson faces an eviction case after he fell behind on rent by $678, according to a court filing. He lives with his partner and two children, ages 8 and 2.

On the front porch of an apartment building on Keeport Drive, 12:16 p.m.

Two bicycles and a pogo stick lean against the railing outside of Donald Megginson’s front door. He’s at home with his sons, ages 8 and 2, while his partner works. The younger son’s face presses against the storm door glass. The elder is probably playing Fortnite, Megginson suspects.

The eviction complaint that could lead to the family’s ejection says they fell behind by $678.60. He says the filing is “ridiculous to me.” A case over one late payment is “kind of outlandish” – especially in a pandemic. “If any time you need to help people, it’s right now.”

The CDC’s order generally bars ejection of tenants if they say their ability to pay rent has been compromised by the pandemic. A Feb. 24 order by Allegheny County President Judge Kim Berkeley Clark says that if the CDC order applies to a case, it is to be put on hold until the CDC order expires – currently March 31. If the CDC order doesn’t apply, cases can still be postponed, for three to five weeks, if the tenant is applying for rent relief or if the eviction is due to the expiration of a lease. Other cases can proceed.

Before the pandemic, the owners of The Alden were already among the county’s top filers of eviction cases. They filed 266 cases in 2019, according to a report by the Allegheny County Department of Human Services and The Pittsburgh Foundation. That placed them fifth among landlords, behind three public housing authorities and the Brandywine Agency, which manages 3,500 rental units throughout the county.

"We've always had a certain percentage of delinquency at this property. It historically is a little bit higher on delinquency than our other Pennsylvania properties," says Flagler.

The Alden’s owners prevailed in 87.2% of their 2019 eviction cases, according to the report, while the rest were withdrawn or settled. The defendants won none.

Flagler says that "95% of our residents at The Alden are hourly wage earners," so the company anticipated that some would struggle in the pandemic economy.

Aion offered payment plans with no fees, deals in which 30% of rent could be forgiven, and agreements to forgive the debts of delinquent tenants who agreed to move out.

"And then, unfortunately, you also had the residents that took advantage of COVID," she says. "They said, 'OK, COVID’s here, eviction moratorium. I'm not going to pay at all.'" She says some "owe almost a year of rent."

None of the 37 tenants against whom the landlord filed this year appear to meet that description. Court filings show that their rental debts, at the time of the filings, ranged from a low of $335 — less than half of that tenant’s monthly bill — to a high of $1,906, which was just over two and a half months of that resident’s rent.

Overall, 2020 eviction filings in Allegheny County were down 60% from the prior year. The housing authorities have reduced (but not eliminated) evictions. Brandywine edges out The Alden's ownership in terms of total eviction cases.

But The Alden's filings make suburban ZIP Code 15236 the top in Allegheny County for eviction cases. Kaiser's court, where all of The Alden’s evictions are heard, is ground zero for hearings.

Kaiser says he’s postponing most of the landlord-tenant cases, due to the Centers for Disease Control's order barring evictions under certain circumstances. He adds that his office has worked hard to let tenants know about rent assistance that is available to them.

The City of Pittsburgh has seen activism and city council legislation to further restrict landlords. Mayor Bill Peduto signed a virtual eviction ban last week, but the Landlord Service Bureau has sued the city, asking the county court to declare it unconstitutional. By contrast, Baldwin Borough officials didn’t know, until a PublicSource reporter told them, that their municipality of 19,752 residents was an eviction epicenter.

Borough Manager Robert Firek and Community Compliance Officer Todd Tulowitzki say they have heard no discussion of the evictions within the borough's government. The mayor and council president did not respond to requests for comment. The seven-member borough council, elected at-large, does not include any Alden residents, according to Firek.

Told that his eviction was one of a burst of 37 filed in close succession at The Alden, Megginson is surprised. He imagines, for a second, what it would be like to be a landlord. “I could never find myself putting people out on the curb when they just can’t make it.”

Inside of an apartment on Keeport Drive, 5:15 p.m.

Shakira Moran has just finished her home-based shift as a customer service representative for a healthcare company. Her fiance is off at his job. Her girls — ages 14, 10 and 1 — are home, and the little one is cranky. “I think she’s just sleepy,” Moran says, handing her to one of the elder sisters. “Here, take her with you.”

The smoke alarm chirps.

Moran has lived here three years. According to an eviction complaint, filed Feb. 1, she and her fiance then owed $384 in rent. The ledger she provides shows that, last month, the landlord added $281 in attorney’s fees to her debt.

The first $110 pays Aion’s attorneys, Bootay Bevington & Nichols, and covers all of their work on an eviction unless it is appealed to Common Pleas Court. The rest covers a court fee that depends on the number of tenants involved in the eviction.

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Shakira Moran and two of her daughters, ages 1 and 10, stand in front of their apartment. The Alden’s landlord has filed for permission to evict them, saying that, at the time of the filing, the family was behind by $384.

"We in many cases will waive [the attorney fee] if the resident's willing to to get current or get on a payment program," Flagler says.

When landlords file claims against tenants, they list the overdue rent, any additional rent that will be due by the time of the hearing, any damage costs they blame on the tenant, and attorney fees, generating a total claim amount. RentHelpPGH’s database of 3,499 pandemic-era eviction cases in Allegheny County shows an average total claim of $2,856.

The total claims against The Alden’s tenants average $2,090, suggesting the landlord is comparatively quick to evict. 

The total claim against Moran is $1,350 – $384 in overdue rent, $856 in anticipated future rent and a $110 attorney charge.

She admits that Christmas, two December birthdays and a shift in her pay schedule “put us behind.” But she believes that other landlords provide more leeway. “We weren’t even a full month behind before we were being, you know, taken to court.” 

The fees make it worse, and the timing rankles. “I mean, I understand that from a business standpoint, that you have to do what you have to do, but we’re also in the middle of a pandemic,” Moran says. 

Still, her approach has been to “buckle down and pay it” rather than fight. “I don’t want to be put in a position where we have to go to court and we owe,” she says, “and then we are facing actual eviction, because with three kids and a work-from-home job, without an address, you know, that just isn’t going to fly.”

On the sidewalk along Keeport Drive, 5:40 p.m.

Rose Mizak has a plan, but the timing is tight.

The landlord’s claim against her totals $1,640. She says her troubles started in November, when she quit a job as a dog groomer. “I probably put in at least 60 applications” for employment, even applying to work for Aion, she says. But the job market proved tough.

She mulled living in her car, with her dog, Bear.

Finally, in late February, she got a job at a warehouse. She’s chipping away at overdue bills, but won’t catch up by her March 18 hearing before Kaiser. She’s earning $12 an hour.

As she walks Bear, the 21-year-old says she spent the afternoon taking the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery test, in hopes of joining the Air Force. She was told that she passed, but the physical test still looms.

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Rose Mizak walks her dog, Bear, at The Alden South Hills. She has applied to join the Air Force, partly because she hopes it will stave off eviction.

She believes military service will mean training, health insurance and funding to go to a police academy. She hopes it will also resolve her eviction case before the court takes further steps.

“I’m hoping that I can get, like, sworn in [by the Air Force] and everything before my eviction date,” she says. “Because they’ll send The Alden a letter saying that because of military reasons, I have to leave.”

“Then hopefully I can get that letter sent out, and have [the eviction] off my record, because it doesn’t look good.”

Rich Lord is PublicSource’s economic development reporter, and can be reached at rich@publicsource.org or on Twitter@richelord..

Jay Manning is a visual storyteller/producer at PublicSource, and can be reached at jay@publicsource.org.

This story was fact-checked by Megan Gent.