Attorneys and volunteer tenant advocates are visiting dozens of district courts in Allegheny County to make sure renters are aware of their rights and what assistance is available to them – and their landlords – to keep them housed during the pandemic.
One morning last week, the lobby of District Judge Richard King’s Carrick office was full as people waited for their cases to be called. Renters and landlords sat on hard plastic chairs under photos of kids’ baseball teams sponsored by King and a large black-and-white portrait of John F. Kennedy.
Attorneys from Neighborhood Legal Services approached tenants and asked if they needed assistance from a lawyer.
They were there to assist thanks to CARES Act funding through the Pennsylvania Legal Aid Network aimed at preventing evictions. Fewer than one percent of tenants in Allegheny County eviction cases have lawyers representing them, according to research released last week from the Allegheny County Department of Human Services and The Pittsburgh Foundation.
King hears cases from South Pittsburgh neighborhoods such as Allentown, Beltzhoover, Knoxville, Carrick and Overbrook. He estimates he hears about 650 landlord-tenant cases every year.
County-wide, there were 851 eviction filings in September and 213 so far in October, as of mid-week last week, according to data gathered by Carnegie Mellon University’s CREATE Lab.
But King said with the current order from the Centers for Disease Control halting evictions, in many cases, hearings in his court aren’t really eviction hearings – at least, not yet.
“It’s a hearing to get the facts, find out if money is owed or if it’s end of lease,” King said. “So, we have all the information. We treat this, if it’s strictly about the money, as more or less a status hearing, give everyone time to fill out paperwork, apply for money and continue the case, and then bring them back in approximately 30 days.”
Both landlords and tenants in King’s courtroom are handed applications and are encouraged to apply for Pennsylvania’s Rent Relief program, which provides funds directly to landlords for tenants who have lost income and can’t make rent payments due to COVID-19.
But attorneys and advocates say with 46 district judges in Allegheny County, and the confusion of various state, local, and federal orders, there can be big inconsistencies from one courtroom to another.
A statewide eviction moratorium for non-payment of rent that had been in place for several months ended September 1, when Gov. Tom Wolf said he could not extend it any longer.
But a few days later, the Trump administration invoked public health laws to put a federal halt on evictions.
“Different magistrates have different interpretations and therefore carry out these hearings in totally random – for them, maybe not random – but we as litigators see as random ways, in ways that aren’t necessarily, what we believe, is in compliance with the law,” said Eileen Yacknin, an attorney and litigation coordinator at Neighborhood Legal Services.
The order from the CDC forbids evictions until the end of the year, though it does not forgive any rent owed by tenants. It applies to all renters earning below $99,000 in annual income ($198,000 for a couple filing jointly). It also only covers evictions for non-payment of rent; tenants can still be evicted for other reasons. It also doesn’t forbid landlords from starting eviction proceedings in court.
Tenants must declare they are unable to pay and have made “best efforts” to obtain government rent assistance in order to be eligible.
In Pennsylvania, state officials have set aside $150 million in in federal aid for rental assistance, but much of that remains unspent, according to the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency. Landlords and tenants must apply to the program jointly and funds are paid to landlords. (This is the aid King was encouraging those in his courtroom to apply for.)
Sometimes tenants have trouble applying because they might not have a written lease, or cannot prove they have lost 30% of their income since March, or because some landlords are reluctant to apply or don’t understand the money will be paid directly to the property owner, Yacknin said.
The program got off to a slow start in distributing aid. Last week, Gov. Wolf signed an executive order to extend the program’s deadline and make other changes to loosen restrictions with the aim of getting aid to more landlords and tenants.
In other local courtrooms, volunteer advocates don’t offer legal representation, but are aiming to ensure renters know about the CDC order.
Jacob Klinger, a volunteer with the Pittsburgh Union of Regional Renters was in Turtle Creek last week to talk to tenants before they had to go before a district judge.
Some tenants might only be vaguely aware of the order or might misunderstand it, in his experience, he said.
“There’s a lot of bad information out there,” he said.