A tale of displacement: A year-long fight against a landlord shows the struggles facing renters forced to move.

PublicSource spent a year checking in with Linda Robinson, a 68-year-old Black renter, as she faced housing insecurity in Pittsburgh.

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Linda Robinson in the home she rented in Pittsburgh before being forced to move in early 2020. (Nick Childers/PublicSource)

The long locs Linda Robinson lost by the fistfuls to chemotherapy five years ago had finally grown back when she lost her braids again, this time to a stressful eviction proceeding.

“We, Black women, our crown is our hair,” said Robinson, 68, noting that in the Black community, hairstyle is a lifestyle. 

Robinson added, “When you lose your crown, it’s devastating.” 

Robinson scrambled to find housing before being forced out, even though her displacement was not due to a problem paying rent. And while her troubles began before COVID-19 shuttered the economy and prompted Gov. Tom Wolf to order a moratorium on evictions, her journey through the legal system is instructive to the tens of thousands of out-of-work Pennsylvanians that lawmakers and housing advocates expect will be swept up in a wave of evictions once filings resume.

In an unprecedented move, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC] on Sept. 4 issued a temporary moratorium that expires at the end of the year. This reprieve, however, requires renters follow a specific process that includes a signed declaration.

In October, roughly 300,000 Pennsylvanians were not caught up on their rent, according to a U.S. Census Bureau survey. Although it is unknown how many Pittsburgh renters have been impacted by COVID-19, more than 5,500 have applied for assistance through the Allegheny County CARES Rent Relief Program, as of the program’s late September deadline.

The more than 800 evictions filed in Allegheny County in September after Wolf’s moratorium order expired appear to show pent up demand, despite the CDC order.

Evictions can happen for several reasons — not just because rent isn’t paid, but the process hurts low-income renters most. Advocates believe that understanding the impact of evictions in the United States is critical to addressing the issues from which it stems: an affordable housing crisis rooted in longstanding societal problems that include poverty and housing insecurity; educational and income disparities as well as health care inequities.

“Housing should be a human right,” said Carol Hardeman, executive director of the Hill District Consensus Group, a grassroots organization formed in 1991 that works to empower low-income and working-class residents.

Research shows evictions do more than displace a family. An eviction is a critical disruption that can – among other things – lead to job loss, school instability for children and increased rates of depression. And because a court record follows an ejection, this can also impede families from relocating to safe neighborhoods where landlords are likely to reject applicants with an eviction history. But in a pandemic, evictions can have the added impact of overwhelming public systems that support the poor, Hardeman said.  

“In the middle of a pandemic, we shouldn’t be talking about evictions," Hardeman said. 

‘Back and forth to court’

Clutching her cane as snow flurries flitted about on a frigid morning a week before Christmas, Robinson shuffled toward an unassuming building in a small Squirrel Hill strip center. 

The majority of tenants facing an eviction do so without legal representation. But on this day, Robinson sat before Magisterial District Judge Daniel E. Butler flanked by counsel. 

“Everybody is getting ready for the holidays, and we’re going back and forth to court,” Robinson told PublicSource.                                   

Two months earlier, Robinson – who is disabled – made a discovery that ignited a long dispute over accommodations she had requested to mitigate her risk of falling since moving into the North Point Breeze rental. While switching out her seasonal clothing in a spare bedroom, Robinson discovered what she alleged to be black mold.

Linda Robinson holding a lamp during her move from a rental home in early 2020. Robinson was in the midst of a dispute with her landlord and alleged that she had found black mold in the home. (Photo by Kimberly Rowen/PublicSource)

Linda Robinson holding a lamp during her move from a rental home in early 2020. Robinson was in the midst of a dispute with her landlord and alleged that she had found black mold in the home. (Photo by Kimberly Rowen/PublicSource)

Robinson’s landlord, Lonnie T. Parker III, who is also Black, agreed to remediate the mold. In a Nov. 1 text message, he responded to her complaint: “It not that heavy. It so plain Ray Charles can see it’s mold. There are no special products used to clean.”

Fearing Parker would not “take her maintenance request seriously,” Robinson immediately filed a grievance with the Allegheny County Health Department, according to a complaint filed last November with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development [HUD].

Three days after that text message exchange, Parker filed for her eviction.

Since her stage-four breast cancer diagnosis, Robinson has been as unsteady standing as she is emotional in October, the month her only child was killed in a drive-by shooting in 1991. 

A retired drug and alcohol counselor, Robinson discovered the mold in October, when she struggles with debilitating depression.

Fast forward two months. Although plaintiffs and defendants sit less than 10 feet away in Butler’s courtroom, Robinson and Parker’s worldviews could not have been further apart.

That December day, Robinson’s attorney, Jerry Dickinson, told the judge he was concerned with keeping “a roof over her head” while Parker complained bitterly about being “cursed out” by Robinson.

“This is an end run to staying an unlimited time,” Parker told the judge.

Generally, failure to pay rent is what triggers an eviction. But so can failure to uphold the lease agreement or if the lease is up and the landlord wants the tenant to move, for whatever the reason, so long as it doesn’t infringe on the renter’s rights. By this point, Robinson was on a month-to-month-lease and her landlord wanted her out.

Parker did not respond to interview requests. But in documents filed in Common Pleas court responding to a civil suit brought by Pittsburgh Commission on Human Relations [CHR], Parker challenged Robinson’s discrimination claim, arguing the accommodations were unnecessary and were not raised before he listed his home to sell on Jan. 15, 2020. 

Robinson, who had moved into the home in August 2018 with the hopes of purchasing it, sought compensation with CHR in civil court for emotional distress, deprivation of her civil rights and loss of housing opportunity.

Robinson, who moved without being evicted, settled her lawsuit with Parker on Nov. 3.

"In the end, one party thinks they got too little and the other party got too much, and that’s a good settlement," Brian Samuel Malkin, Parker’s attorney, told PublicSource. “It costs a lot of money to prove that you’re right.”

‘In a country like this, you can do anything’

While an attorney is not required to petition the Magisterial District Court for relief, the process favors experience, which frequently sits with the landlord. 

The experience can be daunting, particularly for an elderly, Black disabled woman renting subsidized housing in a community in which racism has been found to be so profoundly pervasive as to be declared a public health crisis. But it’s further exacerbated by an affordable housing shortage in Pittsburgh of more than 17,000 units, according to a 2016 task force report.

At the time Robinson was house hunting in January, about 8,500 families were on a waiting list for a federal voucher that had a roughly 30% lease rate, according to the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh. In other words, three out of every 10 low-income Pittsburgh renters find a rental and a landlord willing to accept the voucher. 

Vouchers are good for 120 days, unless an extension is granted.

Linda Robinson packing up a bedroom in the home she was renting in Pittsburgh. (Photo by Kimberly Rowen/PublicSource)

Linda Robinson packing up a bedroom in the home she was renting in Pittsburgh. (Photo by Kimberly Rowen/PublicSource)

Dickinson unsuccessfully argued for the judge to give Robinson, a Pittsburgh native, 90 days to find a new landlord that accepts a housing voucher. 

The concern is that the 60-day period may not be enough time for permanent housing through Section 8,” said Dickinson, a University of Pittsburgh law professor representing Robinson pro bono.

But Butler wasn’t having it. “In 60 days – in a country like this – you can do anything,” he said, giving Parker the right in his order to file for possession in two months.

Dickinson disagreed. 

”That’s simply not the case for low-income tenants, especially African Americans in Pittsburgh,” he told the judge.

While Robinson’s circumstances revolve around a disability, her case touches on an array of issues that a wide swath of renters can relate to, including mental health problems, trauma and poverty.

This is compounded by the fact that an eviction history can haunt renters for years to come. With an average judgement of roughly $1,500, the amounts sought in Magisterial District court can be for fairly modest sums, such as owing as little as $67.93, according to local court data. Or, as in Robinson’s case, when the tenant doesn’t owe anything. 

“We can really look at her case as a much larger macro problem in Pittsburgh,” Dickinson said.

‘Best kept secret’

Robinson’s three-month frantic search for a new home ended in March with a two-bedroom apartment about a mile away in East Liberty.

First, Robinson worried about finding a place that would accept a voucher. Then she fretted over whether Parker would eject her before she could move out on her own, creating an eviction history that could hamper future searches. And finally, downsizing to a smaller rental, she agonized over which of the belongings she had collected over a lifetime she would have to part with. 

The financial costs of moving for a disabled adult receiving roughly $700 a month added insult to injury, Robinson said, when Parker kept most of her $850 deposit.   

Keys left on the mantle of the rental house Linda Robinson moved out of in early 2020. (Photo by Kimberly Rowen/PublicSource)

Keys left on the mantle of the rental house Linda Robinson moved out of in early 2020. (Photo by Kimberly Rowen/PublicSource)

The rental relationship between tenants and landlords can be fraught with financial conflicts, habitability issues and legal disputes.

Pennsylvania law provides protections to both landlords and tenants, but those rights have to be exerted. Local organizations such as Hardeman’s Hill District Consensus Group have worked to close the knowledge gap by conducting workshops to teach renters about their rights.

Robinson left no stone unturned in addressing her landlord issues. 

She filed complaints with HUD, the Pittsburgh Commission on Human Relations and the county health department. The Allegheny County Health Department [ACHD] sent her landlord a letter after she complained about suspected mold; however it included language that said it could be disregarded if an eviction case had been filed — a shortcoming housing advocates were quick to point out.

ACHD changed the language in its letters in April following concerns that “referencing evictions possibly encouraged landlords to seek evictions instead of addressing the habitation issues,” Aaron Aupperlee, a department spokesman said.

These organizations have oversight in varying capacities because of Robinson’s age, income, demographics and disability status.

While the organizations Robinson turned to will not be able to help all renters, many of those hardest hit by the pandemic, such as the elderly and communities of color, could benefit. 

As many as one in 10 of all renter households in the United States receive HUD assistance from vouchers to public housing, according to a 2012 study by the National Low Income Housing Coalition. But only one in four who are eligible for federal assistance actually receive it. About eight in 10 who receive vouchers are female-headed households and six in 10 are Black or Latinx.

Under federal and state law, disabled tenants and prospective renters with a disability have the right to live in a unit regardless of their impairment and landlords are required to make accommodations.

The investigation by the Human Relations Commission substantiated Robinson’s discrimination complaint finding, “The adverse action of the eviction is self-evident.” On Robinson’s behalf, the commission filed a civil action complaint in August against Parker in Common Pleas Court. 

About a third of the discrimination cases the commission investigates annually are housing related. The remaining two-thirds involve employment matters.

“People don’t know about us until they need to know about us,” said Megan Stanley, who as the commission’s director at the time was a member of an informal group of civic leaders working to reduce evictions.

Robinson agreed. 

“They’re a best kept secret,” she said. “People don’t know about them.” 

Nicole C. Brambila is the local government reporter for PublicSource. She can be reached at 412-515-0072 or nicole@publicsource.org.

This story was fact-checked by Juliette Rihl.

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