CP Photo: Jared Wickerham
'Rent Strike' graffiti shown inside a Liberty Avenue bus stop
From bartenders to business owners to librarians, thousands of Pittsburghers are suddenly without work and without pay. Most were not prepared for how swiftly COVID-19 would spread, and how aggressively it would shift every aspect of American life. Since March 15, over 1 million Pennsylvanians have filed for unemployment, which is around 12% of the state's workforce, part of a record-breaking period of unemployment for the country. Now, many are left wondering how they will pay rent in the coming months, as they have no source of income and minimum savings.
There is a growing number of tenants in Pittsburgh, and around the country, asking landlords to forgive or ease rent during the pandemic, and refusing to pay rent if the landlord does not comply.
Near the end of March, the Pittsburgh Union of Regional Renters (PURR), an organized collection of renters in the city, began circulating a petition to cancel rent, mortgages, and utilities in the city, and to extend the current eviction moratorium, which currently lasts through April 30, per an order by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
"People should never have to put a price on their health in the first place, but least of all now," reads the petition. "Facing a public health crisis we didn't create on top of a housing crisis we certainly didn't either, we simply refuse to let you pass one more cost onto renters."
The petition asks renters whether they are willing to withhold their rent, who their landlord or rental company is, and any info they can provide on their rental and living situation.
While there is currently a freeze on evictions — prohibiting landlords from evicting tenants for any reason — the freeze does not explicitly protect renters once the moratorium is lifted. Landlords could still evict tenants once it's over, and might be able to back-charge any rent tenants were unable to pay during the pandemic.
Magisterial District Judge Mik Pappas says that whether a landlord can backcharge rent or evict tenants once pandemic restrictions have been lifted will depend on a case-by-case basis, depending on the individual circumstances of each tenant and landlord, what their contract with each other says, and how they have been affected by the pandemic. He recommends tenants and landlords try and talk with each other and work something out before taking court action, but if it does end up in court, to keep documentation of interactions about the subject.
According to Chris, an organizer with PURR, more than 300 tenants have already filled out the petition. He says the results might skew younger, because the petition has mostly been spread on social media, but there have been patterns of renters from larger rental companies, especially ones that tend to rent to younger renters.
Around 20 current and former tenants of Regent Square Rentals formed a tenants council and sent a letter to their landlords explaining how many of them had lost income, were unable to afford rent, and asking the landlords to negotiate on easing or forgiving rent, waiving late fees, and meeting with a representative of the council (in person or virtually). They based the letter on those from tenant groups in other cities, including Chicago and Philadelphia.
Because of the surge of the current level of unemployment, many people who have previously never filed for unemployment or have never had trouble paying their rent are suddenly in these situations. But for many Pittsburghers, disputing with landlords, struggling to pay rent, and organizing with fellow tenants is nothing new.
Jala Rucker, the president of the Manchester Tenants council who also works with PURR, says the pandemic is only making more obvious problems that have been plaguing tenants for years. Rucker got involved in tenant organizing when she was living in an apartment building in Manchester that was previously public housing and was then owned by Pennrose, a private management company. When the building fell into disrepair and the tenants were unhappy with the conditions, Rucker and her neighbors organized and successfully pushed the Housing Authority to purchase the building again as public housing.
"This has been a crisis and [the pandemic] has made it more clear to everyone else; the nation as a whole, the leaders, the people who make the policies. " says Rucker. "Honestly, it's been clear to them, they just never cared, but now it's affecting them, it's affecting their family, it's affecting their children, it's affecting their pockets."
There is currently no legislation or government order going beyond the eviction moratorium, but local state Reps. Sara Innamorato (D-Lawrenceville) and Summer Lee (D-Swissvale), along with Elizabeth Fiedler (D-Philadelphia) and Danielle Friel Otten (D-Chester), are working on legislation to freeze rents and mortgage payments during the pandemic. The representatives released a memorandum on March 27, stating that under the legislation, "The current financial stress hundreds of thousands of our fellow Pennsylvanians are feeling, and will continue to feel, would be alleviated." The term "rent freeze" leaves some ambiguity, but Innamorato says the aim is to shield people from financial struggle as much as possible.
"The intent is to protect as many people from economic catastrophe as possible: the freeze halts residential rent and mortgage payments as well as commercial rents and mortgages for small businesses," says Innamorato. "Our goal is total forgiveness of these payments, but there are some debates on the constitutionality of this that we still need to investigate."
Innamorato also shares the idea that the pandemic is only laying bare a lack of social safety nets that lead to such a sudden financial shock.
"This pandemic is exposing every precarity: A single missed paycheck means miles-long waits at the community food bank, immediate shocks to the housing market, and precipitous loss of healthcare coverage," says Innamorato. "We have to meet the short-term needs of our neighbors in crisis, but we also have to make a commitment to providing real and robust safety nets for our communities."
While many tenants are battling with large rental companies, there are also those with landlords who might only have a handful of tenants, making the situation less of a clear-cut dispute between big companies and struggling individuals. Some landlords operate as small, individually run companies, which are also struggling with mortgage payments. The Pennsylvania House legislation includes mortgages along with rents in the relief plan, and Chris, from PURR, says that the organization supports a moratorium on mortgages as well, if it's included with rent.
"Having a bunch of bankrupt landlords replaced by banks doing foreclosure-evictions would not be an improvement by any means," he says.
Troy Hill resident Gia Fagnelli (a stage name) makes most of their living from drag, stripping, and other performances. Like many performers, all of Fagnelli's usual venues are closed and gigs canceled. But they previously have had a good relationship with their landlord, who is just one person, and didn't want to leave her with nothing. Fagnelli is planning on paying about a quarter of their rent.
"I'm still sort of figuring out what is possible for me right now, and how much I can afford to offer my landlady, versus what I'm gonna need to eat and what I'm gonna need to survive," says Fagnelli. "I think we're all a little stuck between a rock and a hard place."
There is only one other unit in Fagnelli's building, occupied by a tenant related to the landlord who has plans to move in a few months. But larger buildings with more tenants might find more solidarity among their neighbors, especially if their landlord owns multiple properties in the area.
Regent Square Rentals owns over 450 properties between Regent Square, Edgewood, Swissvale, and Wilkinsburg. One tenant and one former tenant, who asked to remain anonymous, had concerns about paying rent during the pandemic, and began reaching out to neighbors in their building and nearby properties owned by their landlord, to see if any other tenants shared the same concerns.
They knocked on doors in their building, sent out emails, and put flyers around the surrounding area. They got responses from tenants who were unsure about being able to pay rent or who were interested in withholding their rent in solidarity. Before the newly formed tenants council sent a letter to Regent Square rentals on April 1, several tenants emailed their landlords about rent uncertainty, but received unhelpful responses. The organizers describe an "infamous email" in which the Regent Square Rentals sent a reminder not to flush anything that isn't toilet paper down the toilet, and that they would be charged for any plumbing issues.
"That's a frustration we have encountered as well, is that there has been no response and very little from the landlords that even suggests, 'we're in a crisis right now and we're working on it.'" says the former tenant. "So I think that's part of what we're responding to, is that we need any kind of answers, from anyone."
They have not heard from the landlord since they sent the letter asking to negotiate. Around 20 people signed on to the letter. Regent Square Rentals did not respond to request for comment.
"I think it's important to encourage other people to feel like they can take on this kind of thing, because no one else is gonna do it for you," says the former tenant.
Rucker echoes a similar sentiment, saying that tenant organizing is nothing new. She says that tenants are often unaware of their rights or are afraid to act on them, fearing retribution from their landlord.
"People [have] been dying out here from inhabitable issues inside their home, amongst mold and rodents and the poor air quality and their communities being food deserts and a lack of reliable transportation," says Rucker. "Organizing has always been there. They actually just want to hear us now and they're listening now."