In 2017, the year before Magisterial District Judge Mik Pappas took office, 90 percent of landlord-tenant cases in his East End district sided with landlords. This means that 379 out of 421 cases in the district — encompassing East Liberty, Highland Park, Morningside, Stanton Heights, Garfield, Friendship, and Bloomfield — the tenant or renter was forced to pack up and move out, often with little to no financial assistance.
Not all these cases were evictions in the legal sense, but these decisions still deeply affect people lives. Once tenants lose access to a home, finding another can be difficult thanks to a record that blacklists them to other landlords. The vicious cycle means scrambling to find shelter, usually combined with all the other struggles of poverty.
But things are turning around in the 31st District. According to Pappas, in 2018, landlord-tenant cases that sided with landlords dropped 39 percent. Thanks in large part to landlords and tenants reaching settlements out of court, only 51 percent of cases ruled in the landlord's favor. These settlements allow tenants to move out on mutually agreed-upon terms.
Pappas ran his campaign on changing how justices typically handle landlord-tenant cases, and he says his first year in office is about providing fairness and "[carrying] out the rules with a mind to the rights and humanity of the parties involved.”
Pappas heard 363 landlord-tenant cases last year, and about 100 of those were settled, usually with encouragement from Pappas. These settled cases are usually best for both parties, says Pappas, and they tend to take a bit more massaging than just determining who was in the right according to current law.
“These cases are all very unique and very complex and what they take is a lot of listening,” says Pappas.
Pappas acknowledges he ran into some road bumps at the beginning of his term. In January 2018, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported on complaints made by some prosecutors and police officers that Pappas was running hearings late into the evening and alleging he lacks an understanding of the law.
Pappas says the transition from former District Judge Ron Costa to his administration was frantic at first, and Pappas had to play catch up.
“We had to start from scratch,” says Pappas. “We didn't have permanent staff. Everything was brand new. There were some frustrations the first couple of months.”
But Pappas says things are running more smoothly now, and he thanks the constables in his district for making extra efforts.
Moving forward, Pappas hopes to continue making landlord-tenant relationships in his district less combative and to ensure residents have affordable places to live. He has a goal of eliminating lock-out ejectments, where evicted tenants are locked out of their apartments with their belongings still inside, by 2020.
“If an eviction is established, then we want to give them enough time to move,” says Pappas.
He also says the affordable-housing crisis in Pittsburgh won’t be solved without landlords, and he hopes that mom-and-pop landlords will organize and try to secure funds from the Pittsburgh affordable-housing trust fund.
Pappas says mom-and-pop landlords take great pride in providing non-subsidized affordable housing for Pittsburghers, but they often lack the capital funding to comply with Section 8 housing vouchers. He says the affordable-housing trust fund could provide them with money for capital improvements, which could then make it easier for them to create Section 8 housing.
He says this kind of advocacy could continue to improve landlord-tenant relationships.
“These are the possibilities I am excited about,” says Pappas.