Pittsburgh passed an eviction moratorium. Now its pols are quarreling over who gets credit | Analysis

Pittsburgh's Polish Hill neighborhood (Pittsburgh City Paper photo)

By Ryan Deto

PITTSBURGH — On March 2, Pittsburgh City Council unanimously passed an eviction moratorium that will provide protections to tenants during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The moratorium bans landlords from evicting tenants for unpaid rent due to pandemic-related income loss or increased medical expenses, and it will remain in place until the city’s health emergency order is lifted.

The bill was lauded by tenant advocacy groups. Pittsburgh City Councilor Deb Gross worked on the ordinance and wrote amendments that were ultimately included in the bill, which were supported by tenant groups like Carnegie Mellon University CREATE Lab’s Eviction Rapid Response.

“I’d like to commend council on passing the legislation, especially Councilwoman Gross for her work in putting together the amendments and a version that is going to be most effective in protecting tenants,” said Anne Wright of CMU’s team, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Before city council passed its version, there were disagreements between the administration of Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto and some local political candidates who were calling on the city to alter its emergency declaration to create an eviction moratorium.

The issue became a political one — in addition to a housing issue — when state Rep. Ed Gainey, who’s seeking the Democratic nomination for mayor, called out the Peduto administration and city council for not acting on this issue quickly enough.

Mayor Bill Peduto said last month that his administration was working with the council to create a moratorium and said he wasn’t interested in debating emergency orders. But those politics didn’t go away after council passed its ordinance on March 2.

In a statement released on March 2, Gainey applauded Gross’s bill for not only protecting “tenants from being displaced from their homes during a pandemic, it also protects their long-term ability to find housing in the future.”

Gainey then criticized Peduto for allegedly trying to alter the bill, adding that he was glad to see council ignore those alleged suggestions.

“I was frustrated — but not surprised — to learn of the Mayor’s last minute attempt to water down the ban and reverse the progress that had been made on passage,” said Gainey in a statement. “Thankfully, City Council ignored the administration’s maneuvers and passed a broad eviction moratorium that includes a hefty $10,000 fine for lack of compliance.”

Pittsburgh City Councilor Bruce Kraus, a Peduto ally who endorsed the mayor earlier this year, countered with a tweet saying that the bill was a cooperative effort with Peduto, not against him.

“I was present for the crafting of this legislation and took the final vote for its passage. From the start this was a cooperative effort between [Peduto] and City Council to provide responsible, effective eviction relief for our most vulnerable residents,” Kraus tweeted on March 3.

A source within the Gainey campaign told Pittsburgh City Paper on March 3 it was revealed to them that Peduto’s administration provided alternative language for the bill during discussions on crafting language for the bill, and that while that language was not formally introduced, “it was clear from the discussion that the administration’s language would have offered tenants weaker protections than the amendments offered by Councilwoman Gross.”

The Gainey campaign said that Gainey supports the council’s “wise” decision to ignore language from the Peduto administration and approve of Gross’ amendments instead.

In a statement to City Paper, Kraus noted that it is typical for council to deliberate and take into consideration a variety of points of view that are then measured against the powers granted council. He said “amendments offered by the mayor’s office were believed by some to be stronger should the bill be challenged in court,” but that ultimately council chose to pass the bill with Gross’ amendments.

Kraus said time was of the essence in passing the bill — which was something activists had been saying for weeks. Kraus added that the ordinance passed with “the understanding that should we need to adjust to strengthen the bill or stay [a] legal challenge, it is within our powers to do so.”

“I understand that there’s an election taking place, but casting aspersions simply doesn’t help people,” Kraus said. “I thank Council, Mayor Peduto, numerous housing advocates and all who took part in this collaborative process to come up with legislation that passed unanimously and will now become law.”

However, the Post-Gazette reported that council and the mayor weren’t in strong agreement on Gross’ amendments before the ordinance passed, which isn’t very typical for a lot of city legislation. Gross is one of only two city councilors who hasn’t yet endorsed Peduto for re-election, or any candidate in the mayor’s race.

Peduto’s assistant chief of staff Lindsay Powell told the Post-Gazette on March 2 that the administration’s version had an “eye for understanding our current capacity” and may have been more “defensible” if challenged in court. The Pennsylvania Apartment Association, a coalition supporting landlords, was the sole dissenting public comment on March 2, citing concerns over how the city will interact with the court system.

Ryan Deto is a reporter for Pittsburgh City Paper, where this story first appeared.