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More Pittsburgh households now rent than own their homes, and landlords control a growing share 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.

Tenant Cities: Portraits Of Households Facing Displacement In The Pandemic

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Jay Manning
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PublicSource
Shanese Nelson in front of her old home in Penn Hills on Jan. 13, 2020.

A pandemic that impacted income for many families also prompted federal, state and local actions to reduce evictions. But a far-reaching full moratorium gave way to much more limited restrictions, even as many renters continued to struggle. The results included more than 3,200 eviction cases filed by landlords in Allegheny County in the past year, sending some tenants scrambling amid COVID-19 and a longstanding affordable housing crisis.

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Since January, PublicSource and WESA have been spending time with households facing eviction, as part of the Tenant Cities series. We’ve seen tenants try to tap rent relief, scrape to make payments, or take the difficult step of trying to move during a pandemic. 

Here are portraits of four households we’ve met.

 

Shanese Nelson

 

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Shanese Nelson looking at the paperwork filed by her landlord at her old home in Penn Hills.

  

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Unfinished paint around a light switch.
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Shanese Nelson pointing to water damage in the bathroom.
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A hole cut in the wall showing exposed plumbing.
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Shanese Nelson and her two children.
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Shanese Nelson moving out on Feb. 10, 2021.
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Shanese Nelson outside of her new home near Highland Park.
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Shanese Nelson and her two children in their new home near Highland Park.
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Shanese Nelson outside of her new home near Highland Park.

Shanese Nelson’s landlord filed to evict her on Jan. 11. She said she’d been renting from her cousin, Todd Davis, since January 2020 and had complained to him about the unfinished state of the Penn Hills apartment – raw wood, unpainted drywall, leaky plumbing, loose light fixtures, closet doors that did not open or close readily and holes in walls. 

When her lease expired Jan. 10 – even though her rent was current and the pandemic was raging – Davis filed a landlord/tenant complaint against her.

Davis did not comment for the record when contacted by PublicSource.

With two small children and COVID-19 keeping many landlords from showing apartments, moving wouldn’t be simple. “It’s not easy to just move because [the landlord wants] me to move,” said Nelson, who also works full-time as a certified nursing assistant. “I wish it was easy. I’d have been out of here.”

Nelson finally found a new apartment, but it wasn’t ready until early February. She had to downsize from three bedrooms to two. “But it’s an emergency. I’ve got to get whatever’s available.”

And there’s still a pending eviction case against her, including a demand for $3,300 in alleged damage to the unit – for problems that Nelson says precede her living in the unit. “I paid my rent. I don’t have damage.”

“In a few years, I’m trying to buy a house,” she said. Until this year, she didn’t have so much as a traffic ticket on her record. Now she has an eviction case. “And this is petty. This is real petty.”

More Pittsburgh households now rent than own their homes, and landlords control a growing share 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.

 

Rose Mizak

 

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Rose Mizak in The Alden South Hills apartment complex on Feb. 16, 2021.

  

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Rose Mizak and her dog Bear walking in The Alden South Hills apartment complex.

  

Rose Mizak is 1 of 37 tenants from The Alden South Hills who received eviction notices in late January or early February. Facing a claim for $1,640 from her landlord against her.

After putting in upwards of 60 job applications, she landed a job at a warehouse. It may not have been enough to catch up on what she owes before her court date, which has been postponed to July 19.

Mizak took and passed the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery test in March, in hopes of getting into the Air Force. The 21-year-old hoped that this would eventually open a path to get into a police academy.

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

On March 31, she told PublicSource that she had been sworn into the Air Force, and would be leaving for training by the end of April. Mizak hopes she could get the eviction scrubbed from her record.

Ebony Long

 

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Ebony Long in front of her home in Perry North on Jan. 28, 2020.
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A handwritten eviction note sent to Ebony Long by her landlord.
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Ebony Long in front of her home in Perry North on Jan. 28, 2020.

Another mother, Ebony Long, spent the early months of the pandemic doing customer service work for a medical benefits company from home, while caring for a toddler son and, sometimes, her two preteen daughters. But eventually, it got to be too much.

“I lost my job,” said Long. “And then with me trying to do everything else, pay for food, I'm not getting food stamps. ...I couldn't pay rent.” Her unemployment claim took forever.

In November, her landlord, Ragab Refaei, filed to evict. Twelve days later, a district judge ruled in Refaei’s favor, giving him the right to have her ousted from the Perry North house.

Long got help from the Pittsburgh Union of Regional Renters and appealed the decision. During the appeal process, she got caught up on the rent, according to the court filings. Refaei seeks to continue the eviction effort, alleging "illegal activity and disturbing the peace, damage to premises, trash on premises leading to racoon problem [and] unauthorized occupants."

She confirmed some damage, but added that she already arranged to pay for repairs. The rest of the allegations, she denied. A judge referred the case to arbitration.

She’s stayed in a shelter before, and doesn’t think it would be good for her toddler son. "My plan is I've been looking for somewhere else to move, but for now is to just pay this rent.”

DaJuan Davis

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DaJuan Davis outside of his home.

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Marks on the stairs that DaJuan Davis said resulted from grilling.

DaJuan Davis believed the “property damage” referenced in the landlord/tenant complaint filed against him was a charcoal mark on the front stairs, the result of a grilling mishap. Landlord Arbors Management also cited a guilty plea to a disorderly conduct case stemming from an incident at a hospital, a handful of noise complaints and $3,025 in overdue rent.

The back rent piled up despite Davis’ payments of $4,669 to the landlord from August through December, and despite an application for rent relief, which was denied.

He said he's aware that millions of Americans are at risk of eviction as restrictions wind down. “There's a serious problem. And it's not just about people who cannot pay their rent,” he said. “It sounds like to me there's an economic virus and there sounds like to me that there is a hidden agenda” involving “gentrification” and “oppression.”

He transitioned his 13-year-old son to the son’s mother’s care and got involved with the United Neighborhood Defense Movement, which opposes evictions. But on March 9, a district judge found in favor of Arbors, potentially setting up his ejection.

Margaret J. Krauss of WESA and Rich Lord of PublicSource contributed to this report.

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

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