Returning to pre-pandemic normal isn’t always a good thing — at least when it comes to evictions.

As pandemic-era rental assistance ends, eviction filings in July exceeded 1,000 across Allegheny County for the second straight month, returning to levels not seen since the shutdown brought federal moratoriums and state curbs on evictions.

One public agency stands out as July’s largest single filer: the McKeesport Housing Authority, with 78 new eviction cases filed. That figure is made more stark by the fact that the other two housing authorities operating within the county didn’t file any evictions in July. McKeesport’s authority has 878 units.

Evictions in the county have risen for three straight months. The local rise bucks a national trend of lower-than-average eviction filings, touted by the federal government as a promise for a different future.

“Instead of evictions spiking to 200 or 300% of historic averages, as many predicted once the CDC moratorium ended, it has remarkably been 26% below historic averages in the full first 10 months since the eviction moratorium ended,” said Gene Sperling, senior advisor to President Joe Biden and coordinator of the American Rescue Plan implementation.

Sperling noted during an Aug. 2 White House summit that before rent relief, eviction diversion methods were only used in a handful of jurisdictions. “Now, we have given lasting reform the jumpstart.”

In Allegheny County, reforms include payment plans, landlord-tenant mediation and free legal representation. Even housing officials who are using those tools wonder how long they can hold off on evictions.

“There's a significant number of people who are behind on rent and we can't do this forever. Our operating budget couldn't stand it,” said Rich Stephenson, the chief financial officer of the Allegheny County Housing Authority, where about 300 tenants owe some measure of rent but none currently face eviction. The county authority has about 3,000 units.

Steve Bucklew, the executive director of the McKeesport Housing Authority, said the solution to tenants not paying rent is to file for eviction.

“I've got $300,000 in delinquent rent. Fifty percent of my tenants are not paying,” Bucklew said. “We've never experienced delinquencies like this. There's groups trying to delay evictions, but I feel that the only way the message will be communicated to tenants that they have to pay rent is by filing evictions.”

Is eviction the only way?

Through the Emergency Rental Assistance Program [ERAP], roughly 18,000 households in the county have received more than $124 million since the state began disbursing rent relief funds last year. And with the help of ERAP and other sources of funding, Just Mediation Pittsburgh, ACTION Housing, Neighborhood Legal Services and other organizations were able to work with public and private landlords to come up with alternatives to eviction.

But rent relief funding is over now, and as the county begins to adjust to a new reality, the three housing authorities offer two alternatives for the future.

So far, the Allegheny County Housing Authority and the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh have not ramped up evictions as rent relief winds down.

“We have to get the message to tenants that ERAP is over so they need to start budgeting and paying rent. So it would be good to have transitional funding,” Stephenson said. “We're hoping for an additional source of funding and getting tenants back to being used to paying rent.”

The county’s Department of Human Services, which handled rent relief, may no longer have federal funding streaming in but is looking for ways to build on what was learned over the last two years.

“Just providing money is not the full picture of what needs to be done. Some supportive services are needed, like housing stability services, to help [tenants] maintain their housing,” said Chuck Keenan, housing coordinator for the department.

“Any future assistance will be tied more to people who are already in the system and involved in the eviction process already," he added. "Where we're going is not totally clear. It depends what kind of money the county can get.”

Even before the shutdown, there were smaller streams of funding and services aimed at preventing eviction, according to Abigail Horn, the deputy director of the county’s Office of Community Services. She said the human services department is working on a program that would “consolidate all the different revenue streams into one program that individuals who are facing eviction can access without them having to figure out which pot of money they fit into.”

Horn said the county is preparing to release a request for proposals from qualified contractors to complete the consolidation.

The Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh has avoided filing evictions against tenants who owe rent, according to Anthony Ceoffe, the authority’s real estate asset manager.

Ceoffe said the authority has delivered $930,000 in federal rental assistance to 150 to 200 families since the beginning of the year. The city authority has 2,457 units, according to Ceoffe.

With the funds ending, Ceoffe said the authority still has resident services in place that include helping tenants budget, financial literacy classes and helping to identify possible sources of rent relief funds.

The city housing authority also has payment plans for tenants.

Bucklew of the McKeesport Housing Authority said the problem isn’t that people cannot pay rent; it is that people can pay rent but refuse to do so.

McKeesport Towers is a senior living high-rise apartment building run by the McKeesport Housing Authority along the city’s 600 block of 6th Street, as photographed on Thursday, Aug. 11, 2022. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/Rtvsrece)
McKeesport Towers is a senior living high-rise apartment building run by the McKeesport Housing Authority along the 600 block of 6th Street, as photographed on Thursday, Aug. 11, 2022. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/Rtvsrece)

“They feel like they don't have to pay rent anymore,” he said. “They've adjusted their lifestyles accordingly, buying cars, clothes, whatever it is, just not paying rent.

Bucklew said public housing is for people who cannot afford to pay higher rents.

“We have a long list of people waiting to get in,” he said. “So we have people struggling financially who want to get in and they'd probably pay their rent but we have people in here now who don't want to do that.

“That’s not fair to the people waiting to get in.”

McKeesport Housing Authority tenant Gerald McKinney said he just fell a few months behind on rent, and with no way to make money he didn’t know what to do.

On Aug. 11, McKinney appeared in district court for a hearing on the authority’s complaint to evict him. McKinney told District Judge Eugene Riazzi that he couldn’t pay the $1,924 in back rent that he owed all at once. He pays $585 a month in rent.

The normal eviction process

Eviction complaints are filed by landlords. The district judge in the corresponding area decides on eviction based on:

  • Evidence of failure to pay rent.
  • Expiration of the lease
  • Violation of lease terms.

Tenants can appeal the district judge's decision to the Court of Common Pleas.

Instead of evicting McKinney, Riazzi referred him to the county to fill out paperwork and get two months of rental assistance, leftovers from ERAP funds. After that, he’d be facing eviction again with a court hearing scheduled for September.

McKinney said he didn’t know what he was going to do. He said that he suffers from arthritis and also has sciatica, preventing him from working.

“I have no way of making money,” he said.

He also said he only received rental assistance for six months and wondered why he wasn’t able to max out at 15 months, the limit set in the county’s ERAP program.

Mission: avoid evictions

The Allegheny County and Pittsburgh housing authorities have been working with tenants to find alternative ways to pay rent through methods refined and developed before or during the shutdown in spring 2020.

Eviction prevention methods being used by two of the housing authorities include:

  • Financial literacy classes
  • Working with Neighborhood Legal Services to get tenants legal help months ahead of when they think they might not be able to afford rent
  • Payment options for tenants who can’t pay all of their rent at once
  • Using mediation services through Just Mediation.

Frank Aggazio, executive director for Allegheny County Housing Authority, said the agency has continued its partnership with Just Mediation to help tenants avoid eviction.

Stephenson said that over the last two years, the county authority has held conference calls every two weeks with various organizations aimed at preventing eviction. They were able to arrange meetings between Neighborhood Legal Services, which provides legal assistance to tenants, and the tenants six months before the eviction process would have begun. Mediation services have helped tenants find new streams of funding or grants, he added.

Stephenson and Aggazio noted that some of the residents weren’t able to pay rent even after receiving rental assistance for the maximum 15 months. In such cases, legal assistance and payment plans helped prevent tenants from being evicted.

Stephenson noted that previously tenants had up to 12 months to pay back rent, but Aggazio extended that to 48 months. “So if someone owes us $1,000, they make monthly payments. And as long as they keep current on their rent, they're fine,” he said.

Stephenson said the mission of affordable housing is to avoid evictions. Even from a business perspective, he said, the eviction process is costly.

Changing a mentality

Mediation, representation and payment plans all delay getting full rent, though, and Bucklew said the McKeesport Housing Authority has a significantly smaller budget compared to the other local housing authorities.

His agency’s current budget is $3,579,307. The Allegheny County Housing Authority’s budget is $25,207,908. And the city’s housing authority has a budget of $181,396,558.

Without rent from tenants, Bucklew said, it's hard for the authority to pay staff and utility bills. “We pay … 95% of tenants’ utilities. HUD is not giving us money for delinquencies. The system assumes that whatever you charge in rent is what you collect.”

McKeesport's downtown, photographed in 2021.(Photo by Ryan Loew)
McKeesport's downtown, photographed in 2021. (Photo by Ryan Loew)

Bucklew said for his housing authority, mediation programs would just delay tenants paying their rent, further increasing the authority’s financial burdens.

“The focus should be on telling people they need to pay rent, not finding more subsidies,” he said. “You just have to change their behavior.”

Bucklew expressed his distaste for evicting people, noting the financial costs and inconveniences. “But when you have the mentality that they don't have to pay rent, there's no way to change.”

Sustainable rental assistance?

“The pandemic brought a plethora of financial assistance and eviction prevention measurements – both on the federal and local level,” said Adam DiBuo, a managing attorney for Neighborhood Legal Services. “Those things slowly started to fade away.”

DiBuo noted that the state’s moratorium ended on Aug. 31, 2020, and the federal moratorium on eviction ended on Oct. 3, 2021.

“And then rental assistance coming to an end, folks went from being very protected to not having most of these protections in place,” DiBuo said. “The money isn't there and legal protection isn't, but the problem is still there.”

DiBuo said that even without the federal assistance, there are alternatives to evicting people who can’t or refuse to pay their rent.

“The groundwork for sustainable rental assistance was laid. We might need something that was similar to ERAP,” DiBuo said. “Whatever the solution might be, don't let groundwork and format go to waste. We should take what we learned from the pandemic and use that to make a better system, create social safety nets.”

Evicted” author Matt Desmond, at the White House summit, called attention to the reduction in evictions nationally between the July 2021 end of the eviction moratorium and Aug. 2. There were 216,000 fewer evictions than a typical year, he said, and the reduction was especially steep in low-income and majority-Black communities.

But he also noted: “In other states we are seeing evictions rise back to normal and even exceeding normal levels as [rent relief] and moratorium and other federal supports have ran out. We did something spectacular, and it would be a shame to see our country revert back to normal, because normal was completely unacceptable."

Eric Jankiewicz is Rtvsrece’s economic development reporter, and can be reached at ericj@rtvsrece.com or on Twitter @ericjankiewicz.

This story was fact-checked by Abigail Nemec-Merwede.

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Eric Jankiewicz is a reporter focused on housing and economic development for Rtvsrece. A native New Yorker, Eric moved to Pittsburgh in 2017 and has since fallen in love with his adopted city, even...