A Pittsburgh resident facing eviction holds up a sign during a rally organized by the Pittsburgh chapter of the United Neighborhood Defense Movement in February 2021 (Image via Pittsburgh City Paper).
By Ryan Deto
PITTSBURGH — For two days during the first week in August, tenants in Allegheny County had no protection in eviction cases due to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s eviction moratorium expiring and not being immediately renewed. The moratorium had been in place for months as a way to protect people from evictions during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which has led to mass unemployment.
During those two days, Allegheny County eviction filings skyrocketed, as did cases where judges ruled in favor of the landlord and order for possessions, where a tenant can be removed from a unit by a constable. That two-day lapse in the moratorium led to Allegheny County eviction filings multiplying by nearly five times the daily average for 2021, and led to order for possessions spiking by more than seven times the daily 2021 average. Nearly 60 people were removed from homes by constables over Aug. 2 and Aug. 3, when, under previous circumstances of the CDC moratorium, likely only about seven people would have been removed by constables over those two days.
The moratorium was renewed on Aug. 4 by the CDC, and Allegheny County saw its own eviction moratorium extended beyond the CDC regulations after the Pennsylvania Supreme Court authorized Allegheny County President Judge Kim Clark’s request to extend local protections. Allegheny County now has a temporary stay on most eviction cases until Oct. 31.
Advocates say the extension is not only humane to prevent evictions when people still may be unemployed due to shutdowns, taking care of sick loved ones, or quarantining for their own health, but that it’s smart policy because there are still tens of millions of dollars on unspent rental assistance that can only be funneled to tenants in need.
Abby Rae LaCombe of Rent Help PGH said that 98% of people who apply receive rental assistance, which is then funneled into rent payments to landlords. She said Allegheny County has spent about $20 million of its allocated rent assistance funds on 3,500 households, but there is still about $53 million left to spend. And it can only be spent on rental assistance, according to federal law. LaCombe notes that Allegheny County government, working with local nonprofit group Action Housing, has been comparably very good at distributing rental assistance funds, and said not allowing the adequate time to let that continue would be a huge mistake.
“Lifting the moratorium when the money is there is absurd,” LaCombe said. “It takes time to get your application through, especially if you are elderly and don’t have computer access, or a single mom with two kids.”
LaCombe said she sympathizes with some landlords in terms of dealing with problem tenants, but said that over the two-day moratorium lapse, the vast majority of cases filed were not tenants who were destroying property or other extreme cases. They were people still struggling economically because of the coronavirus shutdowns. She said most of the people Rent Help PGH works with on eviction cases are single mothers, and about 20-25% are seniors on fixed incomes.
“We talk to over 100 people a week, they are all good hard-working people and seniors, everyone is someone that has been punished by this pandemic,” LaCombe said.
If the rate of eviction cases and rulings during the lapse kept its pace, LaCombe said there would be no places for many Allegheny County residents to go, citing the region’s shortage of affordable, subsidized housing, and how many tenants facing possible eviction have been particularly hard hit by the pandemic. LaCombe said many of Rent Help PGH’s clients sold their cars during the pandemic to make ends meet, and don’t even have the option anymore of sleeping in their vehicles if evicted. Without a moratorium, LaCombe said local social services would be overwhelmed in trying to help people.
“No, it’s not sustainable,” LaCombe said. “It’s like watching a Mack truck head straight down the road for you.”
Anne Wright of Carnegie Mellon University’s CREATE Lab has been tracking eviction cases throughout the pandemic in Allegheny County.
She says there was one other spike in cases during the pandemic that occurred when the state eviction moratorium lapsed for less than a day in September 2020. Other than that day — which saw the highest spike in cases of the pandemic — the highest daily total of cases during the pandemic in Allegheny County was 51 filings.
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