Lehigh County has an eviction problem. Could a lawyer be the solution? Morning call

In the Allentown apartment where she lived with her three children, Felicia Cantaf noticed a leak from the ceiling in multiple rooms, including one of her son and daughter’s rooms.

Cantaf said that after two years of not addressing the leaks, she decided to stop paying rent in 2021.

As a result, she said, the owner of the house kicked her out, and the case was taken to court, where he won. Kantav, 11-year-old Amir, 8-year-old Cameron and 1-year-old Kamora are forced to find a new home.

While staying in a hotel, Cantaf had to make compromises such as asking people to take care of her daughter while she worked as a transport clerk, or being absent from work to watch her.

“I’ve been living in a hotel for about six to seven months because no one wanted to rent me because of my eviction,” Cantaf said. I didn’t have day care, really much of anything. My son also said something to me that broke my heart. I’ll never forget, he said, ‘Mom, I see you work hard and we moved from our big house to this little place.’ Maybe if I wasn’t here, it would be easier for you. “

Lehigh County ranked fourth in the number of evictions filed in the state in 2021, after only Philadelphia, Allegheny and Dauphin counties, according to the Pennsylvania Housing Alliance. Based on the number of tenants per county, the Housing Alliance found that Lehigh ranked third in the state, behind only Dauphin and York counties. (Northampton County ranked 12th in total evictions and 7th in eviction rate.)

More than 8,300 landlord-tenant cases have been filed in Lehigh County since August 2020, according to a press release from the county comptroller’s office, Mark Bensley. Of these, more than 2,500 ended in evictions; 120 won by the tenant. Other cases could have had outcomes such as a settlement or a judge dismissing the case, according to Joshua Siegel, assistant director of operations at the Comptroller’s Office.

Bensley said 2,500 evacuees would translate to roughly two to three times that number of evacuees.

The Housing Alliance reported that filings and eviction orders surged after halts of multiple evictions ended during the pandemic.

Rent default is a big reason for eviction, according to Jessica Rimmert, deputy chief operating officer of Community Action Lehigh Valley (formerly the Lehigh Valley Community Action Committee), an anti-poverty nonprofit.

In Allentown, rents have increased more than 28% since the start of the pandemic, according to a report from Apartment Listing. The list of apartments found average monthly rents in Allentown to be $1,291 for a one-bedroom apartment and $1,605 for a two-bedroom apartment. Other analyzes found higher numbers. Rent.com reported last month that a one-bedroom apartment in the city costs $1,837 per month, while a two-bedroom apartment costs about $2,193.

Bensley said the people most affected by the evictions are those who have lost their jobs, particularly during the pandemic, such as cashiers and waiters.

ZIP codes with higher percentages of households led by people of color and women with children are also associated with higher eviction filing rates, according to Housing Alliance data.

Other causes of evictions, in addition to non-payment, Rimmert said, include being distracted from paying bills due to mental health issues, not properly caring for residential spaces, and landlords’ desire for richer tenants who can pay more rent.

Mark Rittle, executive director of the New Bethany Ministries in Bethlehem, said wages have not kept pace with the rising cost of living, including the cost of housing and necessities like food.

“In times like this, I think you see the wealth gap getting wider,” he said. “The rich are getting richer and the poor are really getting poorer.”

Solutions that would help reduce eviction rates in the county, according to Reimert, would be affordable housing and access to mental health services, especially for people on low incomes dealing with anxiety and depression. She added that even a normal work day can prevent people from taking the time to quit work and prioritizing their mental health.

“[More mental health services] It will help give people the ability to keep their jobs… which will then be needed to pay their rent and take care of their possessions,” she said. “The pandemic has been hard on everyone and we’re seeing that continues with disjointed social situations and people struggling to get back to their normal routines.”

The main way to stop evictions, Rittle said, is for landlords to stop increasing the price of rent.

“I’m not an economist,” he said, “but it looks like a bubble where…either everyone loses their homes or landlords will be forced to reduce rents.”

He said that quite a few landlords have reached out to Retail to say they have kept rents low or won’t evict tenants until they find an alternative solution for them.

Bensley last year proposed investing $1.5 million in a “right to counsel” program that would provide representation for tenants in eviction cases. As well as reducing service costs in handling evictions.

Bensley cited a study commissioned by the Philadelphia Bar that claimed that tenants experienced disabling displacement 5% of the time when they were legally represented compared to 78% of the time when they were not.

James S. said: Topizza, a West Chester attorney with 50 years of experience in landlord-tenant issues, tenants having an attorney present allows them to take their case seriously and provides the tenant knowledge of the law they might not otherwise have.

“The landlord will be very experienced with the rules of the road, so to speak, and the tenant will have no experience,” Tupitza said. “So they might be tricked into something. If you’re going to play professional baseball, don’t go into the field alone. You hire a professional baseball player to play the game for you…because you wouldn’t be able to do that.”

Bensley proposed getting the money from the US bailout, the 2021 economic stimulus bill aimed at accelerating the country’s recovery from the economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

“In a lot of cases, if you end up talking to some landlord, I think what you’ll find is that landlords will want that too because in the end, what they want is their money,” Bensley said. “They are not necessarily interested in evicting someone as long as they are getting paid. Often times, the problem with displaced people is that rent is 30% or more of their income. So if you fall behind in your income when rent is 30% or more of it, you will never be able to who compensated him.”

The Owners Association of Pennsylvania did not respond to requests for comment.

Lehigh County allocated about $100,000 to the Bensley plan in July.

“We wish we could fund every great idea,” said Director of Economic and Social Development Frank Keane. “At that [$100,000] We ran out…we might consider the idea of ​​increasing funding.”

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He said creating jobs that can keep pace with the county’s inflation rate will help reduce the number of evictions here.

Meanwhile, the county has helped 3,500 families so far with the $47 million that has been distributed from the emergency rental assistance program, Kane said.

“That’s exactly the problem,” Bensley said. Some of these people are entitled to money that they can use. It is possible that these landlords will be paid, just because there is a problem with the timing.”

Pinsley still wants a bigger investment, even if it’s over a period of time.

“My hope is… that we can generate enough information so that people put some pressure on the commissioners [so] And they immediately invested about half a million dollars.”

Cantaf did not attend the court hearing in her expulsion. She said she would have done it if she hadn’t had a car accident that day.

She said she had no legal representation during her eviction; She said getting it “completely” would have helped her cause.

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