On Tue., March 12, the Philadelphia-based organization Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts (PMC) and 31st Magisterial District Judge Mik Pappas will try to empower Pittsburgh citizens with a Landlord-Tenant Town Hall.
As the Facebook event page points out, the Landlord-Tenant Town Hall was organized in response to concerns about access to affordable housing, particularly in Pittsburgh's rapidly changing East End, where Black tenants feel especially pushed out by development in the wake of the highly contentious Penn Plaza demolition. Hosted by Pappas, the event, held at the Bloomfield Garfield Community Center, seeks to educate citizens on the legal process of eviction.
PMC president and CEO, Maida Malone, says they approached the Pittsburgh Foundation about funding for the workshop due to the organization’s work to eliminate housing insecurity.
“They, being extremely sensitive to what’s happening the community, particularly around the high rate of evictions, asked if we could initially focus our programming around landlord-tenant disputes, and we were very happy to do that,” says Malone.
In 2017, the Pittsburgh Foundation launched a research project inspired by the 2016 Pulitzer Prize-winning book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Harvard sociology professor Matthew Desmond. Conducted in collaboration with the Allegheny County Department of Human Services, the project looked at filings for eviction in 2016 in Allegheny County. Of the 1,227 cases filed by City Housing Authority officials in 2016, 142 ended in actual evictions.
While a 2018 report by the Eviction Lab at Princeton University found that Pittsburgh eviction rates remain low compared to the national average, housing advocates argue the numbers only account for cases that actually make it to court. Tenants are more likely to move out after receiving an eviction notice rather than fight it, as an eviction filing would go on their rental history and give landlords a reason to deny future applications.
Malone says that over the past few years it became clear to PMC that most people who lack resources or an understanding of the judicial system are at a disadvantage when trying to navigate eviction proceedings.
“Because there are so many people … who are not able to afford counsel to represent them, they can find the judicial system and the legal processes very difficult to manage, particularly if they’re facing other stresses in their lives,” she says. “It’s difficult for them to really understand exactly what they need to do to represent themselves and to protect their rights or reasonably resolve a dispute with their landlord.”
To try and alleviate this, PMC started doing the town hall workshops in different locations through Pennsylvania. Malone estimates that they have held several across the state in the last two months alone and plan to do more in the near future.
Each event recruits local magisterial court judges, lawyers, and other experts to volunteer their time and help attendees feel more comfortable engaging with the courts.
“There really has been, on their part, a real openness and willingness to do this, which I think also helps, because oftentimes when people confront the judicial system it’s usually unpleasant for them,” says Malone. “My hope as well in doing this is, not only are we benefitting community members, but we’re also helping them to see judges in circumstances where they are willingly giving up their time and coming out to the community to talk to people and answer their questions and help them.”
The first panel at the Bloomfield Garfield Community Center includes attorneys from Action Housing, Inc., the Community Justice Project, and the Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General. The second panel features stakeholders from the City of Pittsburgh Housing Opportunity Fund, the Pittsburgh Commission on Human Relations, Pittsburgh UNITED, Omicelo, the Department of Human Services of Allegheny County, and the East Liberty Coalition of Organized Residents.
All attendees will also receive an up-to-date Landlord-Tenant Handbook, produced by PMC. To make the event as accessible as possible, it’s also free to attend and offers free childcare.
“We want to help underserved residents who can’t afford counsel have as much information as they can to be better able to navigate the judicial system,” says Malone.