Data is at the heart of EarthTime, a visualization tool developed by the Robotics Institute's CREATE Lab, and Pittsburgh housing data has been a particular focus for project scientist Anne Wright for the past two years. That focus shifted, however, with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic this past spring.
Now, Wright and her colleagues scrape the local court websites every day, gathering information about eviction filings and hearings. As part of an initiative called Eviction Rapid Response, they work with a variety of local organizations and volunteers to act on the data by alerting tenants about their rights and linking them to programs that can help them stay in their homes.
"People are being thrown into the deep end of a pool they didn't know existed," Wright said, noting that many tenants facing financial hard times during the COVID-19 pandemic haven't previously been through the eviction process. Tenants often don't know what they can do to halt or delay the loss of their dwelling.
Illah Nourbakhsh, K&L Gates Professor of Ethics and Computational Technologies and director of the CREATE Lab, said the lab has always worked closely with community groups. But the role of its researchers necessarily expanded in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
"When COVID-19 hit, we focused on the urgent needs of the community," he said. That meant making the lab's unique resources and capabilities — such as data-gathering and logistics — available to local groups to fill gaps in services.
"This is very different from operating in an ivory tower," he noted. "I think what we're doing is unique."
The EarthTime housing project has addressed questions such as racial equity in mortgage approvals, effects of gentrification and how families are displaced across school attendance areas. Some of this data is readily available from public sources, such as the federal Housing Mortgage Disclosure Act, which the researchers then map out. Eviction data, Wright said, has been harder to come by.
Initially, the team depended on a previous study by a Philadelphia researcher for information on evictions through 2018. Gathering up-to-date information became possible only this spring — during Allegheny County's eviction moratorium — thanks to a program Wright developed with help from the CREATE Lab's Randy Sargent and Amy Gottsegen.
"I could see the evictions in real-time, but I couldn't do much about it," she recalled, which led her to launch Eviction Rapid Response. With funding from the Heinz Endowments, the CREATE Lab works with such organizations as the Allegheny County CARES Rent Relief Program run by Action Housing, the RentHelpPGH resource navigation project and the Allegheny County Homelessness Assistance Program.
"The first thing we do is make sure they know they're being evicted," Wright said. "Then we let them know that, okay, so the landlord taped something to your door — that doesn't mean you've been evicted. It's just the first step in a long process."
The project team mails flyers to renters to let them know about their rights and the resources available to them, and they collaborate with the public aid lawyer community to provide legal help. They also coordinate with a network of volunteers to encourage renters to go to their eviction hearings — otherwise, they'll be out on the street — and to distribute educational materials at court offices when eviction hearings are on the docket.
About 14,000 evictions occur each year in Allegheny County. Despite the financial stress of the pandemic, the number of eviction filings are only around 3,400 as of late October, thanks to county and state moratoriums (that have since expired). A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention eviction protection program now provides some relief through the end of the year.
Nevertheless, the pandemic has raised awareness and concern about evictions, Wright said.
"People now understand that evicting people risks killing them," she said. "That's always been true, but now it's top of mind."