On a Tuesday afternoon in December, around a dozen public housing tenants facing eviction filled a waiting room in McKeesport, where Magisterial District Judge Eugene Riazzi asked each if they could pay their delinquent rent. 

If so, the tenant agreed to pay the amount owed, plus court costs of more than $150. Unless they pledged to pay, Riazzi ruled in favor of the McKeesport Housing Authority, starting a process that can lead to the tenant’s removal within weeks. Tenants who said they couldn’t pay were referred to a county human services worker who waited in the lobby to help them apply for rental assistance

A similar scene plays out on many Tuesdays in McKeesport. 

Magisterial District Judge Eugene Riazzi is seen through a series of doors as he hears a landlord/tenant case in his courtroom. "THIS OFFICE HAS 24-HOUR CAMERA SURVEILLANCE" reads a sign on the wall beside the court service window. A container of hand sanitizer sits amongst brochures for related court information on a ledge.
Magisterial District Judge Eugene Riazzi hears a landlord/tenant case in his courtroom on Jan. 16, in McKeesport. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

Since the end of the pandemic-era moratorium on evictions in 2021, all three housing authorities serving Allegheny County have filed numerous eviction cases, but none has done so with the same vigor and frequency as the McKeesport Housing Authority [MHA]. These legal actions come as county human service officials and advocates cement a rental assistance network created through pandemic-era federal funding that’s helping tenants of the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh and the Allegheny County Housing Authority. 

The McKeesport authority, by far the smallest of the three agencies with the fewest number of housing units, has filed 562 landlord/tenant cases against its tenants from the start of 2021 through early December. Pandemic-driven curbs on most evictions ended in 2021.

The Allegheny County Housing Authority [ACHA] filed 131 cases and the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh [HACP] filed 263 in that same time period, according to court data gathered by Anne Wright of Carnegie Mellon University’s CREATE Lab, who tracks eviction cases.  

Wright noted that tracking eviction filings for Pittsburgh’s housing authority can be difficult because the organization often uses various names when filing evictions against tenants. Eviction filings also do not necessarily correlate with actual evictions, as some tenants are able to gather the money and stay after a filing.

McKeesport Housing Authority solicitor Jim Creenan wrote in response to questions that the three housing authorities are structurally different. The MHA, he said, has limited resources, so it needs a consistent stream of federally required rent from tenants. He also noted that the authority has a “substantial waiting list” of families wanting to move into its communities.

Snow lines the hillside around Crawford Village Housing Complex as people walk through the parking lot and along a shoveled path. Signs for a bus stop and a pole holding security cameras are in the foreground. In the distance, the blue hills of neighboring Duquesne.
The Crawford Village Housing Complex, in McKeesport. Crawford Village has the highest concentration of units under McKeesport Housing Authority oversight, with 358 apartments. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

Pittsburgh’s and Allegheny County’s housing authorities also have waiting lists for the units they manage.

County human service officials said that the Pittsburgh and county housing authorities are using partners including Just Mediation Pittsburgh to prevent evictions, while MHA has largely declined to use these resources. 

“Prior to the pandemic, the largest filers of evictions were the housing authorities, and at least two of the three housing authorities here are using mediation as a first step to avoid evictions. So that drastically reduced the number of filings we’ve seen in the county,” said Chuck Keenan, an administrator of the Office of Community Services within the Allegheny County Department of Human Services [ACDHS].

Keenan said the MHA used the county’s eviction prevention services at the beginning of 2023 to mediate around 20 tenant cases. Keenan said the housing authority has since stopped using mediation and returned to filing evictions against their tenants. 

A woman talks on the phone at her desk with a laptop.
Jala Rucker, education outreach manager with Rent Help Pgh, tries to coordinate help for a person facing eviction at the Housing Stabilization Center, Jan. 18, in downtown Pittsburgh. The center’s staff helps renters find legal avenues and other means of support to stay in their homes in the face of eviction. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

“They’re not really using mediation as much as we would hope,” he said. “We would encourage all landlords to use mediation as an alternative to filing — including the housing authorities.” 

McKeesport’s Creenan said the authority “has entered payment plans and we have facilitated hundreds of applications for each stage of the COVID-era rental assistance.” In most cases, those tenants continued to rack up delinquencies, he said.

He added that each mediation requires hours of staff time and the resulting delays in payment did not “align with our limited resources and contributed to the arrears” owed the authority.

Fewest units, most landlord/tenant cases

Ziara Wright, a mother of two in McKeesport who is facing eviction and owes several months of rent, said she was still making partial rent payments last year before the housing authority took her to court. She fell behind in part because of a paperwork problem that led to her losing access to her food stamps, forcing her to spend more money to feed her family. 

After a ruling against her and a judgment of $2,417, she filed an appeal. The eviction process and filing for an appeal has been stressful, she said.

“You got to go through that while you’re juggling everything else. You got to pay your bills out there. You got to go to work every day,” she said. 

Speaking broadly, Creenan said that with all of the protections afforded to tenants — including appeal rights and rental assistance — only about 20% of the first-time evictions the authority files against tenants lead to a judge’s order for possession, entitling the authority to remove the tenant.

"Discover McKeesport" reads a red, white, and blue sign above the industrial city's downtown district. A blue bridge crosses the Monongahela River in the background. Snow sits on the town roofs and streets.
Snow coats downtown McKeesport Jan. 16. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

“Many tenants appear to be gaming the system,” he said, “as the number of tenants filing late appeals and other delay-type motions to the Court of Common Pleas have increased dramatically in the past two years.”   

Local housing advocates urge inexpensive mediation before court filings. Landlord/tenant complaints result in fees and legal stains that can hurt the tenant’s ability to find rental housing in the future. 

The McKeesport Housing Authority has 1,021 housing units, and last year it filed a landlord/tenant case for roughly 1 out of every 4 of its housing units. In contrast, the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh brought cases against around 4.6% of its tenants, or about 1 in 20. The county’s housing authority, with 3,839 units, filed cases against 2.6% of its tenants last year. 

MHA’s Executive Director Steve Bucklew declined to discuss its eviction policies with PublicSource and WESA, citing unspecified, ongoing litigation. He referred reporters to a published report by the Public Housing Authorities Directors Association, citing ongoing rent collection difficulties for housing authorities. 

In an interview with PublicSource in 2022, with pandemic-era rental aid expiring, Bucklew said too many tenants were delinquent in their rent. 

“We’ve never experienced delinquencies like this,” he said at the time. “There’s groups trying to delay evictions, but I feel that the only way the message will be communicated to tenants that they have to pay rent is by filing evictions.”

"OFFICIAL NOTICE" reads the black ink of an eviction notice taped to a white front door with yellow tape in McKeesport. A hand-written date, court phone number, and address is added in marker. "IF YOU ATTEMPT TO ENTER THESE PREMISES, YOU WILL BE CHARGED WITH "CRIMINALL TRESPASS" reads the bottom of the page in all-capital letters in front of a law enforcement seal.
An eviction notice hangs on the door of one of McKeesport Housing Authority’s Crawford Village apartments on Jan. 16, in McKeesport. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

Pittsburgh and Allegheny leaning against eviction

The county Department of Human Services has been working with ACTION-Housing, Rent Help PGH and Just Mediation, among others, to divert landlord/tenant disputes to mediation, rather than court.

The county and those agencies have learned a lot since 2021, when pandemic-driven rental assistance started, said Keenan. He said the county in 2023 provided rental assistance to more than 1,100 households, totaling upward of $14 million, whereas pre-pandemic spending was $2 million to $3 million a year.

Pittsburgh and Allegheny County’s housing authorities try to avoid court.  

London Reese-Scaife, a housing support clerk, points towards her computer as she holds paperwork while talking with a person facing eviction at the Housing Stabilization Center, Thursday, Jan. 18, 2024, in downtown Pittsburgh. Reese-Scaife wears a beanie and sweatshirt, the center walls are blue. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)
London Reese-Scaife, a housing support clerk, talks with a person facing eviction at the Housing Stabilization Center on Jan. 18, in downtown Pittsburgh. The center’s staff help renters access mediation, legal processes and other assistance to stay in their homes in the face of eviction. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

“Eviction prevention has become a standard operating procedure for the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh,” said Anthony Ceoffe, senior director of asset management for HACP.

Ceoffe said HACP worked with Just Mediation Pittsburgh and Rent Help Pittsburgh to help mediate cases with its tenants who are facing problems paying their rent. As a result, he said, the authority didn’t evict any tenants in 2023 because of nonpayment of rent. (Some evictions did take place for issues including safety violations, he said.) 

Ceoffe said the authority also has used a partnership with a third party to connect its tenants to budgeting classes, financial literacy and ongoing case management.

A mother's hand rests on her baby's back as she holds it in a white robe. The baby puts its fingers in its mouth.
A mother who faced potential eviction from her McKeesport Housing Authority apartment holds one of her children for a photo on Jan. 16, at their McKeesport apartment. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

“So just because somebody has received rental assistance, that does not mean that the eviction prevention coordinators are done with them,” Ceoffe said. 

Landlords and tenants in mediation have access to available rental assistance — so landlords are still able to eventually get the funds owed to them. 

HACP officials said the book “Evicted,” work by local foundations and advocates, and lessons from the pandemic have contributed to a shift away from eviction filings.

“We are in the business of providing housing,” said Michelle Sandidge, chief community affairs officer for HACP. “To evict a bunch of people just … adds to the homeless situation. That is not something that we’re trying to do.” 

Rich Stephenson, chief operating officer for the Allegheny County Housing Authority, said the agency has invested money and time in preventing evictions through mediation and financial literacy classes for tenants.

“We try to identify the problem,” Stephenson said, “because if someone’s behind in their rent, there’s usually an underlying problem.”

Eric Jankiewicz is PublicSource’s economic development reporter, and can be reached at ericj@publicsource.org or on Twitter @ericjankiewicz.

Kate Giammarise is a reporter at 90.5 WESA, Pittsburgh’s NPR News Station, covering housing and social services.

This story was fact-checked by Rich Lord.

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Eric Jankiewicz is a reporter focused on housing and economic development for PublicSource. A native New Yorker, Eric moved to Pittsburgh in 2017 and has since fallen in love with his adopted city, even...

Kate Giammarise is a reporter covering the impact of COVID-19 on the economy for WESA, and can be reached at kgiammarise@wesa.fm or 412-697-2953.