The Housing Authority
Antoinette C. Oliver’s collaborative Landlord Tenant Project has helped thousands navigate the public housing system
Published in 2019 Pennsylvania Super Lawyers magazine
By RJ Smith on May 16, 2019
Pro bono work is often about dropping into an unfamiliar situation and quickly doing the best you can. But Antoinette C. Oliver has done so much of it that she has become an authority on the ways housing law does and doesn’t work.
Oliver helped create and today manages the Landlord Tenant Project, a collaboration of Arconic Inc., Alcoa Corporation and her firm, Meyer, Unkovic & Scott. The project helps residents understand how to navigate the public housing system and the ins and outs of landlord-tenant law. It runs a hotline for those with immediate issues, and makes lawyers available in situations where they can make a difference.
“Most of us go to law school because we want to be able to help people. This project provides us with the opportunity to do just that, regardless of the type of law that we specialize in or the other clients we service,” says Oliver. “I’m so grateful that I work with a firm that values pro bono service.”
She’s also a member of the Housing Court Task Force empaneled by Alleghany County Administrative Judge Christine A. Ward. The goal is to develop a Housing Court Pilot Project to address all landlord-tenant residential leased housing violation cases in the county.
In a county where 13 percent of residents live below the poverty level, there’s no shortage of need for legal advice and assistance. Sometimes pro bono help amounts to just explaining what happens in an eviction, and what rights you have. “It’s a scary system when you don’t know what’s going to happen next,” she says.
Sometimes she is able to do more. A case she is particularly proud of involved a family being evicted from a home they had lived in under a rent-to-buy agreement. These arrangements, Oliver says, aren’t always what they seem.
“It’s a fertile ground for people to prey upon those with low income who want to own a home,” Oliver says. “They get sucked into these onerous rent-to-own agreements thinking they’ll be able to purchase. But they can be worded as poorly as ‘you miss a payment, you lose all the money you put in.’ And if you have limited means, you won’t have a lawyer look at it before you sign it.”
Oliver represented a single mother who had an unrecorded rent-to-buy agreement with the owner of the home, and after fulfilling her end of the bargain, the tenant believed she was now the building’s owner, only to discover that the landlord had recently sold it out from under her and was now forcing her eviction. Oliver filed a claim immediately, and was able to assert her client was indeed the property’s owner. “If she hadn’t had a lawyer to take on a counter-claim and work to resolve it, I don’t know how it would have ended for her,” says Oliver.
A partner and business litigator at Meyer, Unkovic & Scott, “Tonette” Oliver grew up in the working-class town of Ford City, about an hour’s drive north of Pittsburgh. The pace was small-town, the days full of bike-riding in the summer.
But even then, her eyes were opening to the need for legal access as her parents were separating. “You see even as a child people navigating the legal system, and see how complicated it is, how you need help doing it right,” Oliver says. “To see my mom going through that when I was a child made me want to be able to take on that role for other people.”
That desire has led her to manage another organization: the Allegheny County-based Custody Conciliation Pro Bono Project. The county requires a mandatory conciliation session as part of any child custody dispute; the custody project provides free legal representation for parents who appear before a conciliator.
That helps clients, of course. But the way Oliver sees it, the conciliation project also helps introduce lawyers to the rewards of taking on pro bono work. The sessions are “bite-sized,” she says. “You get your feet wet, and who knows, you might want to do it some more.”
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