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Housing advocates and city leaders want to provide lawyers for Pittsburgh tenants facing eviction

Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey stands at a clear podium with a sign that reads "Housing is a human right."
Kiley Koscinski
90.5 WESA
Tenant advocates joined city leaders Thursday to call for the expansion of the "Lawyer of the Day" program to assist tenants facing eviction.

A group of tenant advocates are asking Pittsburgh to expand a program that provides free legal assistance to low-income renters facing eviction. Joined by City Council members and Mayor Ed Gainey, dozens of organizations spoke in favor of a “Right to Counsel” for all city renters.

“Everyone in our city, no matter what neighborhood we call home, deserves a secure home,” said Jala Rucker, a tenant organizer at the Northside Coalition for Fair Housing and a partner of the Pittsburgh Housing Justice Table. “For too long, legal outcomes have been stacked against renters who do not have access to representation in housing court.”

Advocates want to expand the “Lawyer of the Day” program, which currently operates in four Pittsburgh Magisterial District Judges’ courtrooms; there are 12 such district judges citywide. (Allegheny County Executive Sara Innamorato has said she plans to expand the program to two other municipalities outside of the city.)

Under the program, tenants can have the assistance of an attorney, as well as a navigator who can explain what financial assistance is available to pay landlords. Some landlord-tenant cases can also be referred to mediation.

“We already have a good model for this” in parts of the city, said Justice Table member Dave Breingan, the executive director of nonprofit Lawrenceville United.

“Evictions have devastating effects on households," he said, "so it’s critical for all tenants to have equitable access to all legal measures to protect themselves and ensure working families can remain in the neighborhoods they call home."

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Statistics compiled by advocacy group Pennsylvania United suggest that when tenants were provided legal counsel and resource navigation services during the eviction process, the had favorable outcomes more than 70% of the time — up from 14% before the program launched.

But only parts of the city are reaping those benefits. While renters in neighborhoods that include Homewood, the Hill District and the North Side have received support, residents in communities such as Hazelwood, Carrick and the West End have not.

Swain Uber, a housing attorney with the Community Justice Project, said the existing program's success is the reason it should be expanded.

“We have a two-tiered system right now within the city limits,” he said. “Some residents, when facing eviction, have a much better chance than others to remain in their homes simply because they live within a magisterial district where the Lawyer of the Day program is currently operating.”

Uber estimated that to expand access to legal representation, the city would need to increase the program’s current budget by roughly $2 million. Adding an expansion of eviction-diversion and other intervention services would put the total cost at $4 million or $5 million annually.

Landlord-tenant cases are civil, not criminal, matters, so defendants are not automatically entitled to legal representation, as they would be in a criminal case.

A 2021 study by The Pittsburgh Foundation found that in almost all the local landlord–tenant cases it looked at, neither the landlord nor the tenant had lawyers. The study found landlords won about 85% of cases; tenants won fewer than 2%. (The remaining cases were mostly settled or withdrawn.)

There are roughly 13,000 eviction cases filed annually in Allegheny County, according to a study by The Pittsburgh Foundation that examined filings from 2012 to 2019. Not every filing results in an actual eviction, however, as tenants can be permitted to stay in their units if they are able to come up with the money owed even after a case is filed.

Several other local jurisdictions around the country have passed measures ensuring tenants receive legal representation, though some have struggled to staff such programs. Local leaders struck an optimistic chord about the program’s potential in Pittsburgh.

Mayor Ed Gainey said he looks forward to working with City Council to support the expanded program costs. When asked whether there was room in the city’s budget for the program, amid rising fears about municipal finances, Gainey said it is a priority for his administration.

“What we don’t want to do is make people homeless,” he said.

Advocates were joined Thursday by City Council members Barb Warwick, Deb Gross, Bob Charland and Khari Mosley, all of whom pledged their support for expanded tenant representation as a way to keep people in their homes.

“Right to counsel is important for putting tenants on a playing level when they go to court," Mosley said, "but its greatest value may be preventing them from ending up in court in the first place."

He added that the program would empower renters to fight for themselves.

“When renters know they have representation, and more importantly, when landlords know it, the incentive to make legally weak or baseless threats is greatly diminished,” Mosley said.

Uber pointed out that the program helps landlords too. Eviction costs roughly $5,000 per process, and property owners would save money if financial assistance covered back rent and avoided the proceeding altogether.

“Landlords are paid for past-due rent; families get to stay in their homes, and our communities are stronger because we all get to stay together," Uber observed.

Ed Benz, executive director of the Active Community of Real Estate Entrepreneurs group, agreed that expanding the program could be good for both tenants and landlords, who would otherwise have to find new renters more frequently. He likened a good tenant to "a business partner who will take care of my place for three to five years and pay the rent."

Benz said he’d like to see tenants be able to access rental assistance more quickly, to improve the recovery of lapsed rent payments.

“We have no objection to [tenants] getting assistance,” he said. “We would prefer that our resident get legal assistance up front first because it avoids a lot of the delays" that result from court proceedings.

Benz said his only immediate concern with the expanded Lawyer of the Day program would be tenants “abusing the system.” He said the city should ensure that lawyers aren’t working to defend tenants that “never pay rent and work the system as much as possible to try and get free housing."

Benz said communicating with landlord groups up front, as groups like Action Housing have done, can avoid court proceedings altogether and keep both sides happy.

“We do not want any of our residents to go through eviction,” he said. “Landlords would definitely prefer to see tenants stay.”

Kiley Koscinski covers city government, policy and how Pittsburghers engage with city services. She also works as a fill-in host for All Things Considered. Kiley has previously served as a producer on The Confluence and Morning Edition.
Kate Giammarise focuses her reporting on poverty, social services and affordable housing. Before joining WESA, she covered those topics for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for nearly five years; prior to that, she spent several years in the paper’s Harrisburg bureau covering the legislature, governor and state government. She can be reached at or 412-697-2953.