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Keystone Crossroads: Rust or Revival? explores the urgent challenges pressing upon Pennsylvania's cities. Four public media newsrooms are collaborating to report in depth on the root causes of our state's urban crisis -- and on possible solutions. Keystone Crossroads offers reports on radio, web, social media, television and newspapers, and through public events.Our partner stations are WHYY in Philadelphia, WPSU in State College and witf in Harrisburg. Read all of the partner stories here.Pittsburgh’s WQED joins the collaboration as an associate partner. Support for this project comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Ideas Worth Stealing: When Evictions Happen, Laws To Soften The Blow

Sarah Schneider
90.5 WESA

In July, 2015 the landlord at Penn Plaza, a private multi-family housing development in Pittsburgh’s rapidly gentrifying East Liberty neighborhood, slipped 90-day eviction notices under the doors of all tenants in one of their buildings (tenants of the other building now have until 2017 to vacate).

Many of the tenants were already on month-to-month leases. Many were low-income, using federal subsidies like Section 8. Indeed, according to the East Liberty Development Inc., Penn Plaza’s 312 units made up 12 percent of all affordable units in the neighborhood in 2015. Penn Plaza management had redevelopment plans for the space, to convert it to higher-rent units and add commercial space.  

Legally, the property owners were within their rights.

Landlords can initiate Notice to Quit – or, eviction – proceedings for three reasons: a failure by tenants to pay rents, a breach of the lease, or because the lease has ended and the landlord does not wish to renew it. In the latter case, they’re required to give a 15-day notice under the state’s Landlord and Tenant Act (or whatever is specified in the lease).

But Penn Plaza’s mass eviction raised alarms. The mayor got involved, a tenant council formed, and various non-profit organizations worked to help tenants find housing.

“We understood that this wasn’t a legal issue,” said Lillian Grate, who was part of the Penn Plaza tenant council. “Legally they could evict us, this was a private landlord that we were dealing with. So what we did was appeal to their heart.”

Eventually, negotiations between the tenant council, the city and its partners, and the landlord resulted in a Memorandum Of Understanding providing extended time to move and relocation funds for tenants.

At a press conference last month, Mayor Bill Peduto said, “every private developer in this town is going to look to Penn Plaza. And before they just say 90 days and you’re out they’re going to know there’s a different process we’re going to take in the city of Pittsburgh.  

For now, it seems the approach may be an unofficial policy of the mayor’s office – no ordinance extending notice times or requiring relocation benefits has been introduced, yet. The city’s bargaining chip is its bureaucracy: developers may want comply with the city’s demands if they need any zoning or rezoning approvals, city cash subsidies or tax abatements, or if they’re eyeing any city property for a project. Penn Plaza can check all three of those boxes.

Mayor Peduto, when asked if the developer won in the deal, too, joked, “There’s an old adage in City Hall. There’s two ways to get something done: there’s the red carpet treatment or there’s the red tape. We’re looking for partners in developers who want to work with us on a mission of making sure no one’s misplaced in this city, and we’ll do what we can to roll out of the red carpet.”

But some say the laws – whether at the local or state level – could be strengthened.

Dan Vitek, Senior Housing Attorney at Neighborhood Legal Services Association of Pittsburgh, said he’d “like to see a stronger notice requirement....particularly when it isn’t an individual breach of the lease that is resulting in the tenant’s eviction…so that tenants have more time to secure alternative housing.”      

Other cities experiencing displacement due to development have done just that, codifying what’s expected of landlords.

For example, last year Portland, Ore. amended a housing ordinance to increase the notification time for any eviction proceedings to 90 days. In addition, the law requires the owners of properties using project-based Section 8 vouchers, a type of federal subsidy, to notify the city of any plans to terminate their contract within at least 150 days. Tenants of such buildings also have to receive a 150-day notice, and the landlord cannot evict someone without a defined cause for 180 days after the contract expires if the city pays what the federal subsidy did under the contract. The Portland Housing Bureau helps with relocations costs.

Seattle, Wash. has had a law since 1990 dictating relocation payments. The Tenant Relocation Assistance Ordinance provides benefits to any low-income tenant displaced by “housing demolition, substantial rehabilitation or alteration, or change of use or removal of use restrictions.” Tenants receive $3,490, half of it paid by the property owner and half by the city.

Pittsburgh leadership is thinking about affordable housing in the city. The Affordable Housing Task Force is expected to present its recommendations in the next six months and Council recently passed a bill barring discrimination based on source of income. Mayor Peduto talks often about making sure development doesn’t further split the city into two Pittsburghs – one for the wealthy, one for the poor. Looking to cities that have already had to deal with exploding housing markets can introduce new tools to help manage Pittsburgh’s growth more equitably.     

Find more of this report at the site of our partner, Keystone Crossroads