Eviction filings in Allegheny County rose in November and December after the expiration of pandemic-driven curbs, bringing 2021’s total number of landlord-tenant cases to more than 5,800.

The increase in cases, though, has not been as steep as that expected by some observers of the rental housing market.

“It’s weird that we are not seeing a tidal wave, as I expected, since the moratorium dropped,” said attorney Brad Sommer, who represents landlords in eviction cases. Federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention restrictions on evictions expired Oct. 31. “I was very surprised when this was lifted and I’m not being inundated.”

The 764 landlord-tenant cases filed in December fall well below pre-COVID norms of around 1,100 eviction filings per month. And many cases are resolved without the tenant’s ejection. But they occur amid a pandemic and at a time when tenants, local officials and even a prominent banker bemoan the scarcity of affordable housing.

“There’s long waiting lists,” said Richard Wierzbowski, an East Liberty retiree who has been apartment hunting since June, and whose landlord filed to evict him in December. “Some are not even taking applications anymore. And as far as market rate, it’s way beyond what my monthly income is.”

Pandemic-era measures including rental relief and a landlord-tenant mediation program appear to have reduced the flow of eviction cases. Funding for rent relief, though, is limited. 

One of the county’s big landlords fears that eviction cases may yet surge. “The families living with us are still suffering the results of COVID,” said Brandywine Agency President John Katz, “and the economic consequences of COVID are going to extend for years.”

Wierzbowski, 73, has a Housing Choice Voucher, also known as Section 8. He said he has called landlords directly and worked through agencies but is told at every turn that there’s nothing available for voucher holders. “I’m under a lot of stress, even trying to find an apartment,” he said.

In December, landlord Yifan Yang filed a landlord-tenant complaint against him alleging overdue rent and an expired lease. Wierzbowski said he paid the back rent.

“Primarily they want him out so they can remodel the property,” attorney Michael Melodini told District Judge Mik Pappas at a Dec. 14 hearing on the case. Melodini, of Sommer Law Group, led by Brad Sommer, represents Yang, who is based in San Mateo, Calif.

Richard Wierzbowski, 73, of East Liberty, stands outside of the courtroom of District Judge Mik Pappas following a Dec. 14 hearing on landlord Yifan Yang's bid to evict him. (Photo by Rich Lord/PublicSource)

Pappas continued the case until Jan. 11, at which time he could grant or reject Yang’s request to take possession of Wierzbowski’s unit. Yang declined to comment.

Sommer said landlords like Yang have repairs to make and bills to pay, adding that he also understands the plight of evicted tenants in today’s market.

“A lot of times tenants want to move,” he said. “Both parties want the same end goal.” But the tenant can’t find a new place. “It’s a matter of getting more affordable housing options.”

Among the landlords filing the largest numbers of eviction cases last year were some of the county’s largest, including several — Brandywine, the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh [HACP], The Alden South Hills — that focus on households of modest means.

Brandywine owns or manages around 4,000 units, the bulk within Allegheny County, and caters to households that can afford around $600 or $700 a month, including many with vouchers. Its 195 landlord-tenant cases in 2021 represent a sharp drop from the company’s pre-pandemic average of more than 500 annually.

Katz said that just nine of the cases filed by Brandywine in 2021 have resulted in ejections of tenants, with another 11 cases terminating when the tenants moved out. Most cases ended with the resident catching up on rent and staying put. He said Brandywine has been able to reduce displacement using the county’s rent relief program and a new mediation option.

The nonprofit Just Mediation Pittsburgh, created last year to resolve disputes between landlords and tenants before they get deep into the court system, has taken 225 cases and resolved 93% of them, according to Aaron Erb, the program’s executive director. Most of the cases have focused on the tenant’s failure to pay rent. 

Katz said 61 Brandywine tenants have agreed to mediation, and all were able to make payment arrangements.

Both Katz and Erb said that resolving landlord-tenant problems has been a lot easier because of the county’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program [ERAP]. That federally funded program can cover rent and utilities, for as long as 15 months, for households below income thresholds that have suffered economically due to COVID-19. 

Launched in March and run by nonprofit ACTION-Housing, ERAP has received more than 23,000 applications. According to a county data dashboard, those households included:

  • More small households than large ones. Half of the households had just one member, versus just 15% that consisted of four or more people.
  • A large majority of women and children. 70% reported a woman as head of household, and 41% included at least one child.
  • An outsized number of Black-led households. 58% reported a Black head of household, in a county whose population is around 13% Black.
  • A diversity of ages, but skewing young. 33% of the heads of household were between the ages of 25 and 34, versus just 4% of household heads age 65 or older.

ERAP has made $68.4 million in payments for some 12,000 households. Only 253 applications have been denied, and more than 10,000 are still being processed with an average of 85 new applications per day.

“We thought that after the initial influx of applications, at some point the number of applications would decrease,” said Natalie Ryan, a housing assistance program manager with ACTION-Housing. “But that is not what has happened.”

Around half of the tenants against whom landlord-tenant cases were filed in 2021 were also ERAP applicants, according to data assembled for ACTION-Housing. Most of the cases involving ERAP applicants were resolved without the tenant being displaced. It’s likely that thousands of recipients of rent relief might otherwise have faced eviction, according to Ryan.

The 1,050-unit Alden South Hills urged delinquent tenants to sign up for ERAP, enter into payment plans or leave voluntarily, according to Robin Flagler, president of AION Management, which runs that Baldwin Borough complex. It filed cases only against tenants who “chronically ignored” such requests, and ultimately ejected just one, she wrote in response to questions.

Since the pandemic began, HACP has not been filing landlord-tenant cases for overdue rent, reserving litigation largely for cases in which residents present criminal or safety issues, according to HACP spokesman Chuck Rohrer. Only 15 of the authority’s 2021 cases proceeded all the way to actual ejection of the tenant, he added.

Rohrer wrote in response to questions that the HACP hasn’t decided when it will resume filing for eviction due to overdue rent. He added that 767 of the authority’s households — around one-third of the total — are behind on rent, and the authority is urging them to apply for ERAP.

Ryan said the ERAP applications in hand will likely use up all of the federal rent relief money slated for the county. County officials were unable last week to estimate when the ERAP money will run out.

What will happen then?

“I think that we’re going to see a wave and it’ll be really grim and hard to ignore,” said Jacob Klinger, an organizer with the Pittsburgh Union of Regional Renters, a tenant advocacy group. PURR has been helping tenants through the ERAP process.

“People are going to be homeless,” added Jala Rucker, PURR’s director and organizer.

Eviction case totals don’t capture the extent of housing insecurity in some communities.

When Sade Swan, 29, brought her newborn home to a duplex in Homewood North in mid-October, the weather was just starting to get chilly.

“I wanted it to be nice and cozy in here, so I went to go turn on the heat  and it wouldn’t click on,” she said last week, as she sat next to a thermostat that registered 41 degrees.

Sade Swan, 29 and a mother of four, outside of her Homewood North duplex. The landlord is pressuring her to leave, but she has been unable to find landlords who are accepting applications for rental housing in her price range. (Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource)

She asked the property manager to fix it. She said he told her to move.

She called the Allegheny County Health Department, and on Oct. 28 an inspector found an inoperable furnace, leaks in the ceiling, deteriorating flooring and electrical safety violations. At the department’s suggestion, she and her boyfriend, a warehouse worker, began putting the $800-a-month rent into escrow pending the repairs. But nothing’s been fixed.

The kitchen ceiling of the North Homewood apartment that Sade Swan rents. (Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource)

PublicSource’s efforts to reach the property owner, Jeffrey Jackson, of Verona, were answered only by texts from a person who did not provide a name, but who said Swan damaged the property and had been given 90 days to leave.

Swan said that for months the family relied on space heaters and spent almost all of their time upstairs. She said the property manager then disabled the water heater. That has forced her, her boyfriend and four children to spend their nights in a two-bedroom apartment with another family of four people. “So, you know, it’s real tight,” she said. 

“He’s doing everything in his power to try to get me out of here,” Swan said of her landlord. Except for one thing: He hasn’t filed an eviction case against her. That means she has no forum in which to plead her case. She is working with Neighborhood Legal Services to try to address the situation.

She has also been looking for a new apartment. Her credit history is spotty, and so far she hasn’t even found a landlord willing to take an application.

She said social service agencies have referred her to homeless shelters. “Honestly, with me and my kids, especially my little baby, I don’t want to go to a shelter, especially with [COVID] cases rising and all that,” she said. ”I don’t want to put them in that predicament.”

Rich Lord is PublicSource’s economic development reporter. He can be reached at rich@publicsource.org or on Twitter @richelord.

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Rich is the managing editor of PublicSource. He joined the team in 2020, serving as a reporter focused on housing and economic development and an assistant editor. He reported for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette...