The Pittsburgh Foundation

Pittsburgh Foundation releases “Eviction in Allegheny County: a mixed-methods study”

Report includes recommendations for creating an eviction-prevention system in Allegheny County to model best practices and reduce poverty.

PITTSBURGH, April 13, 2021 – While no one wants to evict or be evicted, the legal process of removing a person from their home happens with alarming frequency and disproportionately impacts the county’s lowest-income residents, according to a study conducted by The Pittsburgh Foundation in cooperation with a range of stakeholder groups.

Eviction in Allegheny County: a mixed-methods study,published today, also found that the lack of consistent eviction protocols contributes to the cycle of poverty and housing insecurity for vulnerable people, and that more incentives and supports are needed for landlords to help make housing more accessible to individuals and families in need. One example cited by both landlords and tenants is the need for incentives for landlords to take part in the Housing Choice Voucher Program (formerly known as Section 8). The report on the study that began in 2016 concludes with a series of detailed recommendations that, if enacted, would create a countywide eviction-prevention system, and serve as a model for other communities.

The study is the product of scores of convenings with stakeholders in the system – affordable housing advocates, city and county government officials, public- and private-housing landlords and tenants – for the purpose of understanding how to develop policies and practices to reduce evictions.

“With an issue as complex and emotionally charged as eviction, there is no solution without all of us involved,” Pittsburgh Foundation President and CEO Lisa Schroeder said in announcing the study. “I want to commend all the stakeholders, especially those working in government agencies responsible for management of housing and regulatory enforcement, for joining us in this thorough examination and aspiring to develop policies and procedures that could eliminate a major contributor to housing insecurity and cyclical poverty.”

It is the first time that eviction-filing data from Allegheny County courts and housing communities was analyzed alongside qualitative assessments. In interviews with 40 tenants and landlords, there was dissatisfaction with the state of eviction filings but also ideas on how to develop better policies and procedures. The report also includes assessments from housing providers, magisterial district court judges and a court administrator, and housing authority staff.

The quantitative research is the result of a partnership between The Pittsburgh Foundation and Allegheny County’s Department of Human Services (DHS), which manages housing-support activities for vulnerable populations and uses its data warehouse to better understand issues such as housing and eviction.

The report comes at a time when public awareness of eviction is soaring and as the country faces a mass wave of potential eviction filings when COVID-related eviction moratoria end. Five years ago, when the research project was launched, few people outside of tenants, landlords and housing advocates were even considering the impacts of eviction, but thanks to the Eviction Working Group convened in 2016, Allegheny County has a head start in coordinating efforts to create an eviction-prevention system.

Those evicted have often waited years to access public housing and housing choice vouchers. The study found that tenants often lose their homes and possessions for relatively small rent payments and then may find it nearly impossible to find new housing. This is mainly because the city’s affordable housing needs far outpace demand.  Eviction filings—including those that do not lead to actual removal from the property—appear on a tenant’s credit report, which landlords can cite as a reason not to rent.

The report’s quantitative analysis was conducted by Michael Yonas, Dr.PH, the Foundation’s vice president of public health, research and learning, and Rachel Rue, Ph.D., an analyst with the Homelessness and Housing team in the Allegheny County Department of Human Services’ Office of Analysis, Technology and Planning.

Conducting the research and forging recommendations was a cooperative effort requiring public-private-nonprofit collaboration over several years. Rue spent hundreds of hours compiling and sifting through eviction court filing data that she and Yonas analyzed for the report. Dr. Yonas led a team at The Foundation that included Program Associate Tika Good, former Senior Vice President of Policy & Program Jeanne Pearlman, Ph.D., and Jenn Sloan, social change fellow in philanthropy. Part of the work involved convening five qualitative discussion groups to gather lived experience and analyze the qualitative data. Senior program officer for economic and community development, Jane Downing, served as the project lead, ultimately forging the recommendations for creating an eviction-prevention system in the county with input from members of the Eviction Working Group and members of the National League of Cities Eviction Prevention Cohort in 2020.

Quantitative findings from the report include:

  • About one-third of all landlord-tenant eviction filing cases involve just 15 landlords who rent primarily to low-income tenants. Claims involve relatively small amounts of money—a median claim amount of $1,645 in 2019.
  • The cost of eviction filings is higher than back rent. In a quarter of cases, overdue rent accounts for less than half of the fees and fines that tenants are ordered to pay.
  • Eviction filings are time consuming and costly for everyone: The eviction process takes an average of 42 days in Allegheny County, requiring landlords and tenants to miss work, find child care and transportation and incur moving costs. In 2019 alone, Allegheny County landlords claimed $25 million in unpaid rent and related debts that are generally never recovered.
  • There is no uniform system to track eviction filings in Pennsylvania: That makes it difficult to calculate the total number of filings that result in actual eviction. There is also no method to track the numbers of tenants who move out when threatened with an eviction filing, a situation which can lead them to lose their housing vouchers and be ineligible for future subsidized housing support.

Qualitative responses, all collected anonymously, include:

  • “I can no longer pay this $800, but I have nowhere else to go,” said a tenant about the financial struggles that result from the lack of affordable housing. I’m trying to juggle: Do I pay some rent? Do I feed my kids? What do I do?”
  • When tenants get ahead, their public benefits may be reduced and push them back into poverty. As one of the project’s advocates explained, “[You’re] penalized for every single dime [you] make. They jack up the rent and they back-charge $1,000. You’re working and you report it, and five months down the line, you’re tacked on another $1,000. So it’s not a win–win situation.”
  • Tenants do not always understand how assistance programs work and benefits may go unused.  “And what happens all too often,” one Housing Authority employee explained, “is people don’t come to report the increase [in their income], because [they] don’t want [their] rent to go up. But then we find out … and I come to you saying, ‘I now need to back-charge you $2,000 because you didn’t report an increase in income a year ago.’ You know they can’t come up with that kind of money. So the communication stream is critically important.”
  • Landlords find the housing voucher process onerous and frustrating. As one landlord said, “The last thing a landlord wants to do is evict. It’s a nuisance, it’s time-consuming and everyone loses.”

Recommendations for reform: The report, coupled with findings from the Eviction Working Group and participation by the Foundation in a National League of Cities Eviction Prevention Cohort, concludes with recommendations for creating an eviction-prevention system in Allegheny County including:

  • Coordinating diversion and housing stabilization programs that include publicly funded rental assistance, mediation and legal representation, incentives for landlords to accept housing choice vouchers, and education about lease agreements and assistance programs.
  • Increasing the supply of affordable housing units and encouraging rehabilitation of existing housing stock rather than building new units.
  • Reforming court policies and procedures to reduce the social and economic impact of eviction filings on the most vulnerable. This includes creating a uniform eviction-filing system and standard procedures that integrate demographic information to examine the impact of eviction by race, income and gender, on who evicts and who is evicted, eliminating and/or reducing court fees and fines and sealing and expunging eviction filings unless the landlord retakes possession of the property.
  • Improving public housing administrative processes and procedures and making them easier to understand. This includes making it easier for tenants to find voucher-accepting units and landlords to agree to accept Housing Choice Vouchers.
  • Advocating for procedural, policy and legislative changes to create fair and equitable eviction policies. This includes changing the Landlord and Tenant Act to eliminate the waiver clause for the “notice to quit” in private leases, advocating for sealing and expungement of eviction filings and increasing state funding for early legal support and representation.

While this research was being conducted, The Pittsburgh Foundation funded a series of efforts totaling about $500,000 to support reform of the eviction-filing system. These include:

  • Funding the nonprofit Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts to host a series of trainings for the public, tenants and landlords by magisterial district judges who hear eviction cases.  
  • Supporting a Help Desk as part of a pilot Housing Court program in Allegheny County Common Pleas Court. Staff answer questions, provide proper forms for tenants appealing the decisions of the Magisterial District Judges and refer tenants to social services and pro bono legal and emergency rental assistance programs.

“This participatory research and the report’s findings provide unique insight that informs the needs for an overall community response to addressing the factors impacting eviction,” said Yonas. “Just as important is the Eviction Working Group, whose more than 60 members including human services providers, landlords and housing authority staff, foundations, housing advocates and residents who together have laid the groundwork for launching an eviction-prevention system.”   

The Eviction Working Group that the Foundation convened from 2016 until 2019 is now led by the City of Pittsburgh’s Human Relations Committee starting in 2020.

As COVID was raging in cities across the country last year, The federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act responded to public health expert concerns about residents losing their homes to provide funding for eviction-prevention programs. These included rental and legal assistance, a landlord-tenant mediation program and resource-navigation assistance.

The Foundation funded Just Mediation, an initiative that brings trained mediators to landlord-tenant disputes. It also worked with stakeholders in the expanded local Eviction Prevention Cohort to extend the temporary moratoria on evictions.

Although the local response to evictions during 2020 was uneven, lessons learned are resulting in a coordinated eviction prevention effort in 2021. With funding from CARES Act II, for which the Foundation advocated at the state legislative level, there is one unified Emergency Rental Assistance Program for the City of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County residents; and a coordinated effort to provide needed mediation, legal and rental resource navigation services before eviction filings, during and after the court procedures. The Foundation continues to engage in advocacy efforts to extend eviction moratoria, working with a statewide coalition at state/county/federal government levels.

What we’re trying to do,” said Downing, “is build a foundation for a coordinated eviction-prevention program. We intend to encourage more communication and provide resource information to both landlords and tenants toward the goal of preventing filings from happening in the first place.”

Opportunities for future research: There are a number of limitations of this research which offer opportunities for additional study. Examples of limitations include: the inability to assess differences in the impact of eviction by race, income and gender in Allegheny County as demographic data is needed but is not currently collected in the court records for eviction filings, which makes it impossible to examine eviction filings to understand disproportionate impact on certain populations.  Additional research is needed to examine the trajectory of eviction filings to understand the factors associated with those that end in a formal eviction, and how the appeals process impacts individuals, families and communities. Study of evictions in the private housing market is also needed. Most of the qualitative data collected for the report refers to landlords and the lowest-income tenants, who are potentially most vulnerable populations living in public and subsidized housing settings. In Allegheny County, 71% of rental housing is in the private market, where the conditions and influential factors related to eviction impacting both tenants and landlords may differ from those presented in this report.

# # #