By Atiya Irvin-Mitchell
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
During a time of unemployment and uncertainty, Pittsburgh United hosted a virtual town hall on housing, displacement, and protections for renters and homeowners. After a two-hour conversation on Monday were advocates, legal counsel, and elected officials fielded questions and laid out possible solutions the consensus among panelists was that there was much to be done to prevent displacement during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.
From the county level Allegheny County Councilwoman Olivia Bennett recalled at council’s previous meeting they’d passed a motion calling for a moratorium on eviction and utility shutoffs. However, Bennett lamented that the motion wasn’t binding, therefore they could do little to protect tenants struggling financially due to the pandemic.
“The challenge for us at county council is yes we passed this motion but it’s a motion,” Bennett observed. “It is not binding, it’s not a law or ordinance it’s not really doing anything to make this enforceable. Motions are great but they’re statements, we need something that’s lasting that’s going to protect folks in the county.”
Bennet called on viewers to reach out to county council and make their desire for enforceable legislation known. Furthermore, Bennett expressed frustration at the concessions she and Councilwoman Bethany Hallam have had to make due to co-councilmembers “not having the courage.” During the pandemic, Bennett believed it was necessary to legislate aggressively.
“If there’s any time to be stepping over boundaries and doing things that should protect folks it’s now,” Bennet said. “In my view, we should ask to [give] apologies, instead of asking for permission.”
From the capital, Rep. Summer Lee would voice similar frustrations about the road to achieving protections for tenants during the pandemic. Although Lee is sponsoring a memo for a rent and mortgage freeze, she explained the feedback she and her colleagues had gotten was that a freeze might not be enough.
“What we’ve been hearing from folks is that a rent freeze is not sufficient right now because if this money is able to accrue throughout the longevity of this crisis, which we don’t know how long it will last, we stand to create a bigger disaster if folks are then expected to pay all at once,” Lee explained.
Lee questioned the legislature’s priorities in that there seemed to be little political will to move on matters such as housing and or paid sick leave, despite the overwhelming need.
“We’re a month into this crisis and we’re not voting on housing bills, we’re not voting on healthcare bills, or worker protection bills and to be perfectly honest I don’t know that we will due to the nature of our legislature right now,” Lee said.
Lee added that in addition to trying to gain support in the legislature lawmakers had begun circulating a petition asking commonwealth residents to voice the urgency of a need for the mentioned freezes.
Furthermore, Lee observed the potential for a greater housing crisis was one of many interconnected symptoms of systemic inequality that had been highlighted throughout the pandemic. The representative hoped this time would be used to work on system-wide changes such as universal healthcare and creating an equitable education system.
“We’re not going back to normal, normal is what got us here and there’s no space for us there nor for any of the communities we represent,” Lee asserted.
At the beginning of April, the commonwealth’s Supreme Court issued an order extending a moratorium on evictions. Though this had many tenants breathing sighs of relief due to pandemic related hardships, with the order set to expire April 30 Kevin Quisenberry, Litigation Director of the Community Justice Project worried where the order’s end would leave vulnerable tenants.
Quisenberry said that every county court could exercise its discretion to extend their own moratoriums through the end of May due to the Supreme Court’s order. Landlords, Quisenberry said, ought to call on local president judges to do that in the event the Supreme Court doesn’t act to extend the order past April.
Quisenberry added that without rental assistance programs that helped pay back rent for tenants who couldn’t afford to pay after job-loss, when moratoriums lifted then many tenants could be left behind.
“We’re going to be facing a group of folks that may still have protection through the federal moratorium and another group who have no legal protection,” Quisenberry said.
He’d make the case for communicating with landlords to help them see what they could do besides pursue eviction. As the financial losses due to the pandemic are unlikely to be recovered for low-income renters, Quisenberry said, eviction would create a lose-lose situation.
“We’re all in one boat, every one of us has to have stable housing for health reasons due to the health crisis,” Quisenberry said. “This is not the tenant’s fault, it’s not the landlord’s fault either this is a global pandemic which has caused an unprecedented unemployment rate.”
Quisenberry added his organization was encouraging landlords to explore proactive options such as mortgage deferral and forbearance if their tenants are unable to pay rent. He’d point to an open letter authored by Jamil Bey, director of the Urban Kind Institute, and signed many several local organizations as a place for landlord resources.
Currently Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac owned mortgages is allowing payment forbearance for homeowners impacted by COVID-19 for up to 12 months. Locally, Quisenberry stated many banks such as PNC Bank and Dollar Bank were offering a mortgage deferral option for homeowners enduring hardship due to the pandemic.
“It’s a matter of the landlord reaching out and asking for it,” Quisenberry said.