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Amidst Eviction Moratorium, Some Tenant Advocacy Groups Look To Collective Action

Michael Dwyer
A nationwide eviction moratorium will end in March, and as tenants consider their options, some advocates are urging them to unionize.

On today's program: PublicSource reporter Rich Lord explains why some tenant advocacy groups are looking for ways to grow renters’ political influence in his latest story about “Tenant Cities”; and the Pittsburgh Union of Regional Renters has been recruiting volunteers to help those experiencing evictions with everything from remembering their hearing date to filling out paperwork. 


Tenant advocates hope unions can wield political influence

(0:00 — 9:45) 

An eviction moratorium ordered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been extended through March, but some tenant advocacy organizations want more than a rent freeze. They want the power dynamic between tenant and landlord altered. One way to make this happen, they say, is unionization. 

The idea is that a collective of tenants holds more power and can provide more support when addressing issues with a landlord or management group. 

“A year ago we had a delicate balance between the interests of landlords and tenants,” says Rich Lord, who has been covering the issue for PublicSource. “I say ‘delicate’ because there were still 13,000 evictions a year, typically.”

Lord says in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, renters have been offered eviction restrictions, and rent relief, but these efforts to support tenants have not been seamless. In collaboration with WESA, Lord has been covering the city’s transition to a place where the majority of residents are renters for the series, “Tenant Cities.”

“Certainly there has been a history in the Pittsburgh area of periodic efforts to organize tenants into a force, either a political force or even a collective bargaining force,” says Lord. Similar to labor unions, tenant unions have tried to enforce rent strikes to progress their cause. 

One anti-capitalist tenant advocate organization, United Neighborhood Defense Movement or UNDM, has been vocal about the potential of a tenant union. 

“UNDM particularly is saying that they are planning to build eviction defense forces, groups of perhaps two dozen people that would show up when there’s an eviction and would attempt to stop it by plain disruption if necessary,” explains Lord.

“We’re seeing something that resembles, in my mind, what happened after 2008 when we had that financial crisis that just made a segment of the population really mad at the way the system had treated issues that it was concerned with,” says Lord. “I think it’s yet to be seen whether the anger that we’re seeing, and frustration in the, for lack of a better word, ‘tenant class’ is going to be an enduring part of our political system.”

How volunteers are supporting those facing eviction
(9:53 — 18:00)

In January, Allegheny County saw nearly 400 eviction filings with landlords and tenants. Despite eviction moratoriums and rental relief, many tenants are still getting left behind trying to navigate the web of resources, or lack thereof.

The Pittsburgh Union of Regional Renters, or PURR, started using volunteers to help those facing eviction. 

Volunteers do “all the stuff that the government should do, but won’t,” explains Jacob Klinger, an organizer with PURR. 

This includes informing tenants they have an eviction hearing, meeting them at the courthouse with essential paperwork, and sometimes even providing food and other resources. 

“We have shown up to people’s places the day that the constable was coming on their door, threatening to change the locks and take their children away, because the tenant never knew they had a hearing in the first place,” says Klinger.

“It’s not a level playing field, and was never intended to be, all the more so in the pandemic.”

Lauren Banka is one of the volunteers recruited to help those facing eviction. 

“Just seeing the catastrophic effects of the pandemic and then seeing evictions that were scheduled to kick people out right as winter was starting, I felt a tremendous sense of urgency to do whatever I could,” says Banka. A mom to twins, Banka says she’s been making phone calls for PURR “between bedtime and bathtime.”

  “It’s nice that you’re able to help someone, but it always just begs the question: Why are we in this situation in the first place? Why does any  of this need [to be] done?” says Klinger. 

The Confluence, where the news comes together, is 90.5 WESA’s daily news program. Tune in weekdays at 9 a.m. to hear newsmakers and innovators take an in-depth look at stories important to the Pittsburgh region. Find more episodes of The Confluence here or wherever you get your podcasts.

Kevin Gavin is the host of WESA's news interview program "The Confluence." He is a native Pittsburgher and served as news director for 90.5 WDUQ for 34 years. Since the sale of the radio station by Duquesne University to Pittsburgh EPM, Inc. (now Pittsburgh Community Broadcasting Corp.), he served as Executive Producer of Special News Projects prior to being named as host of "The Confluence" five years ago.
Marylee is the editor/producer of The Confluence, the daily public affairs show on WESA. She got her start in journalism at The Daily Reveille and KLSU while attending Louisiana State University. She took her passion for audio journalism to UC Berkeley's graduate program and worked in public radio at WPR in Madison, WI, and WOSU in Columbus, Ohio.
Laura Tsutsui is a producer for The Confluence, WESA's morning news show. Previously, she reported on the San Joaquin Valley with the NPR affiliate station in her hometown of Fresno, California. She can be reached at
Born and raised in Pittsburgh, Isabelle is a student at George Washington University studying Political Communication. She loves all things Pittsburgh sports and serves as a sports anchor for GW-TV. In her free time, she enjoys museum hopping and walking her dog, Stevie.
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