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More Pittsburgh households now rent than own their homes, and landlords control a growing share of the housing market countywide. COVID-19 is testing the health of this market, bringing eviction curbs, rent relief and a revived tenants’ rights movement. PublicSource and WESA are exploring these changes and examining the governmental and civic responses to the emergence of Tenant Cities.

'Nowhere to go': Landlord fined thousands, but one McKeesport family is still without heat

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Kaycee Orwig
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PublicSource
Patricia LaChoppa of McKeesport fights tears as she considers the prospect of another winter without a working furnace.

Patricia LaChoppa fears this winter will be much like the last one. She, her husband and their adult children spent the bulk of their time in the living room and dining room, with two space heaters running and a blanket hung in the entryway to keep the warmth in.

That’s where things stand 14 months after LaChoppa called the Allegheny County Health Department to complain about what was then a lack of heat and water, plumbing and electrical problems, holes in walls and an unsecured awning in her side of a McKeesport duplex.

“It scares me because I love my kids and my husband very much,” LaChoppa said on a November day, as she sniffled away tears. “And to live another year like this?”

The county’s Housing and Community Environment regulations require that dwellings have heating systems sufficient to keep the indoor temperature above 60 degrees.

In LaChoppa’s case, the Health Department has inspected five times and employed one of its most potent enforcement tools — penalty fines — to the tune of $15,500.

Her landlord, though, struggles to manage his properties from a nursing home. He would happily sell the duplex, under certain conditions.

It’s a difficult situation, and the Health Department’s current process hasn’t remedied it. LaChoppa’s rusted-out furnace remains cold as December unfolds.

It started with an act of mercy

In 2017, LaChoppa needed to find a place to stay, and fast, when her effort to buy a house on a rent-to-own basis went south. LaChoppa is disabled due to the circulatory condition avascular necrosis. She lives on Supplemental Security Income, and her options were few.

Her ex-husband was living in a duplex. The other half was empty, the utilities turned off.

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Kaycee Orwig
/
PublicSource
Medical bracelets hang from Patricia LaChoppa's wrist to alert medical professionals. She has had two recent surgeries and requires the help of her adult children.

The landlord, David Messinger, let her family move in. “I asked her, ‘How much can you afford?’” he recounted in a November interview. In the end, he agreed to let her live there, temporarily, rent-free. “You can't expect somebody to pay rent for a place that's not livable.”

LaChoppa said the understanding was that the landlord would make the fixes, and then she’d pay rent.

“And he's never done anything,” she said.

There was a time when Messinger would personally remodel and maintain his five properties, all in McKeesport.

By the time LaChoppa arrived on Franklin Street, Messinger was 85. He was just about ready to make repairs, he said, when age caught up with him.

“I thought I was just going to go to the hospital and get my legs straightened out a little bit,” he said. Instead, he’s been in a nursing home in McKeesport for two years. When he tried to hire someone to make repairs, they took a down payment but did nothing, he said.

So for three years LaChoppa lived, rent-free, with her second husband and her son and daughter, now in their 20s. For water, they relied until recently on her ex, who has running water in his half of the duplex. For warmth, they used two space heaters — all the 119-year-old duplex’s electrical system could handle.

Why stay in a dilapidated property without heat and water?

Due to her limited income, LaChoppa said, she doesn’t think she can afford anything else in the tight COVID-era rental market. “Even living in a house that is run down as this one, as much work as it needs, it's better than living on the streets,” she said. “I have nowhere to go with my family.”

Last year, LaChoppa’s visiting nurses said they didn’t feel safe coming into a home with no utilities and with pest problems. “They said, ‘You need to get a hold of the Health Department and see what they can do,’” she recounted.

400 days later ...

LaChoppa made that call on Oct. 6, 2020, and the department’s reaction was swift. That day, a manager called Messinger and told him to get the heat and water back on within 24 hours.

Fourteen months later, that hadn’t happened.

The department inspected LaChoppa’s unit five times between October 2020 and Nov. 18, 2021. It waited until February to assess a fine, of $2,500, and then until June to add another penalty, of $13,000, when repairs still weren’t made.

Messinger, meanwhile, filed to evict LaChoppa and her husband in July. The landlord didn’t allege any overdue rent, but he noted that their lease term was over and that he had asked them to leave.

Messinger said he thought the eviction would supersede the Health Department action. In years past, the department had a policy of suspending enforcement while evictions were pending, so it didn’t devote limited manpower to landlord-tenant disputes that were already in court. Now, though, the department inspects and enforces even if the landlord is trying to evict.

LaChoppa said she showed District Judge Eugene Riazzi receipts for purchases she’d made in hopes of improving the bathroom. The judge dismissed the case.

Messinger appealed the Health Department fines against him and got a hearing. The department’s administrative hearing officer, though, ruled against him on Nov. 9. He can appeal to the Court of Common Pleas. For now, though, the fines stand.

They remain unpaid.

Messinger said he’s getting no rent from most of his tenants. He can’t even afford to pay property taxes. How is he going to pay thousands of dollars in fines?

In an email response to questions, Health Department spokesman Christopher Togneri wrote that the department does not anticipate further enforcement against Messinger.

A potential solution

LaChoppa believes she could tap a variety of programs that help pay for repairs if she was the property owner. And Messinger isn’t opposed to selling, for $30,000 minus agreed-upon repair costs — though he might want to live in one half of the duplex as part of the deal.

The $15,500 in fines, though, could become an impediment to any sale.

The department seeks to collect unpaid fines by filing judgments in court. If the property owner doesn’t pay, the judgment typically must be paid off at the time of any sale of the real estate.

“You tack on a whole bunch of fines, now there’s no way to even sell the property, because there’s all these fines on it,” said Robert Moncavage, a landlord who is president of the Realtors Association of Metropolitan Pittsburgh. He has no involvement in LaChoppa’s situation.

Is there another approach?

Togneri, in an email response to questions, wrote that inspectors can refer tenants to potentially helpful agencies, “and they are trained to do so.”

A new nonprofit organization mediates disputes between landlords and tenants, while longstanding

programs in Allegheny County help to repair properties.

LaChoppa and Messinger, though, both said the department never directed them to resources.

“No, nothing, nothing,” said LaChoppa. “They came in, they did their report, they left.”

“I think we need the emergency programs to step in, do the emergency work that's necessary to get people help and up to code,” said Elizabeth Marx, executive director of the Pennsylvania Utility Law Project. She is not involved in this case, but she spoke generally about challenges of landlord-tenant situations where utility problems leave tenants in the cold or the dark.

“I think we need strong policies and programs that step in when a landlord isn't fixing an emergency situation and then figure out ways to go after that landlord to recover those costs,” Marx added.