In McKeesport and throughout Allegheny County, no quick fixes for rental housing woes
The whir of a power drill and stacks of materials wrapped in white plastic suggest change at Hi View Gardens, a half-century-old hillside complex in McKeesport in which roughly 100 households have endured years of faulty heating, leaking roofs and lax security.
In 2018, PNC Bank bought the five-building, 117-apartment Hi View Gardens and nearby, 11-story Midtown Plaza. They are among dozens of investments the bank has made nationally in affordable housing in a bid to prevent such assets from converting to market-rate rentals.
The McKeesport properties subsequently became scenes of rising numbers of violations of Allegheny County housing health regulations, for lack of utilities, pests, mold, fire or electricity hazards, damaged walls and ceilings and more. Calls to 911 also surged, and a core group of tenants organized and engaged a Community Justice Project attorney.
In recent months, the bank has begun renovating a fire-damaged Hi View building, replaced property managers at both properties and installed security doors. A maintenance contractor has inspected every unit and started working through a long maintenance backlog.
“I think we’ve done a lot of work,” said Richard Bynum, PNC’s chief corporate responsibility officer, in a December interview with PublicSource and WESA. “I think it’s been in concert with listening to the residents and their concerns and trying to alleviate those concerns where absolutely within our control and possible. But we have a lot to do in front of us, there’s no doubt.”
Shortcomings in Allegheny County’s rental housing market aren’t limited to older, subsidized communities like Hi View. In this year’s Tenant Cities series, WESA and PublicSource have explored the stability and quality of the rental market, as well as government efforts to curb evictions during the COVID-19 pandemic and limited enforcement of housing health rules.
Around 37% of households countywide rent, including a majority of Pittsburgh households and half of those in McKeesport. Civic response to tenant concerns has been uneven, but Pittsburgh leaders are now pledging a repeat effort to register and inspect all rentals, and the Allegheny County Health Department is planning to pursue new housing enforcement measures.
If Hi View Gardens is any indication, concrete change won’t come easily or quickly, even where it’s backed by a bank with hundreds of billions of dollars in assets.
Tenants who lived through winters without working boilers and summers of infestation and leaks aren’t happy with the pace.
“They’re putting Band-Aids on it. My granddaughter can do that!” said Tanya Brown, leader of the seven-month-old Hi View Gardens Tenant Council, as she stood with two other tenants near the complex’s freshly asphalted parking lot. “The main important things they need to do, they’re not doing. We need roofs fixed. We need bathroom toilets fixed.”
“Are there delays? Yes,” said Bynum. The bank and its contractors needed federal Department of Housing and Urban Development approval for managerial changes, and City of McKeesport permits for some capital fixes. “There have been delays in receiving materials because of shortages and because of the supply chain,” which has resulted in slow delivery of roofing and air conditioning materials, he said.
Those factors won’t be used as excuses, he said. “We want to make sure that the properties get into the condition that they need to be in to provide those residents a great place to live, and then we’ll work out the rest of the issues from there.”
When mice played in the stove
Built from 1969 through 1975, Hi View and Midtown long have been havens for low-income families who pay 30% of their incomes in rent, with the federal government picking up the balance. PNC’s purchase of the properties in 2018 was followed by an unsuccessful bid for federal low-income housing tax credits to renovate Hi View, then a period of maintenance decline leading to the formation of the tenant council.
Even as tenants report an uptick in maintenance activity, the effects of years of neglect are evident.
From late 2019 through early 2020, Candace Washington didn’t have reliable heat in her apartment, she said as she stood on a Hi View sidewalk with her 4-year-old son.
“I used to have to use the stove for heat, and it being open, the mice would go up and play in it,” she said. Though new management has reduced the mouse problem, she doesn’t feel comfortable using the once-infested stove and has asked for a new one, she said. In the meantime, she’s eating out a lot or paying others to cook for her.
To protest conditions, she stopped paying rent, prompting an eviction filing by former property manager Preservation Management Inc. The eviction was granted by a district judge but is now under appeal.
After learning of the extent of the problems in Hi View and Midtown, PNC this fall got HUD’s OK and then replaced Maine-based Preservation Management and Evergreen Partners, which had been the bank’s partner in plans to redevelop the properties. Now the bank entrusts management to the nonprofit NHP Foundation, which in turn has hired Strip District-based NDC Asset Management to perform maintenance.
Bynum said PNC’s partners hired four people to inspect every apartment in Hi View and Midtown and to start repair work. They are still trying to hire one more maintenance person for each property, he added. Some repairs are being deferred until the roofs are fixed, which can’t occur until permits are finalized and materials arrive, he said.
The new team has moved quickly to improve security, he said. Locked doors requiring key fob swipes for entry, improvements to surveillance camera systems and an arrangement for more patrols by McKeesport police are meant to improve residents’ sense of safety, he said.
The team has an architect working on plans for a Hi View building that has been empty since a fire in May 2020. Bynum said work there is expected to start in earnest early next year.
In hopes of large-scale rehabilitation of Hi View and Midtown, NHP is working on applications for tax credits, which it would submit to the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency [PHFA] in early 2022. Competition for tax credits is intense, and PHFA typically announces awards in autumn.
“We’ve spent a significant amount of money, but it’s not about money,” Bynum said. “It’s about getting the issues at both Hi View and Midtown corrected and fixed, based on what the residents have shared with us.”
Renting trend not likely to reverse
Hi View and Midtown are part of a county rental housing market that spans high-rent North Hills buildings, high-turnover South Hills complexes, small-time owners struggling to maintain duplexes and single-family houses.
A region long known for affordable for-sale homes is shifting due to forces largely outside of local control.
The manufacturing economy encouraged people to reside near their workplaces. We’re now in “a global economy in which stability and being in one place like you used to be is not as needed,” said Roberto Quercia, a professor at the University of North Carolina Department of City and Regional Planning who focuses on housing. Households anticipating future moves might prefer to rent, he said.
Quercia added that increasing purchases of single-family homes by national investors, who then rent them out, can crowd out first-time homebuyers and keep them in the ranks of renters.
The COVID-19 pandemic, which made homeownership more attractive to many, may also lock households of modest means into the rental market, added Mark McArdle, assistant director of the Office of Mortgage Markets within the federal government’s Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
“What we've been going through during the pandemic is this almost historic rise in [home] prices based on incredibly low supply,” he said, speaking as a housing expert rather than a voice for the bureau.
Renting is “not necessarily bad,” McArdle added. “Renting and homeownership are choices that you make depending on your stage of life and your needs and how long you're planning to stay” in a place. But for most American families, he added, homeownership has been a path toward accumulating, retaining and passing on wealth.
Pittsburgh’s Urban Redevelopment Authority has programs that help to make homeownership affordable to families of modest means. Allegheny County also has programs for first-time homebuyers below certain income levels.
The rise in renting “does take more enforcement action from local government to make sure that the physical quality of housing is being maintained, that landlords are being responsive to tenant concerns,” said Jenny Schuetz, a senior fellow at Brookings Metro studying urban economics and housing.
That process may be underway. Pittsburgh Mayor-elect Ed Gainey has said he will pursue the registration and inspection of rental properties in the city. The county Health Department has said it expects to consider new penalties for property owners who don’t fix housing violations, and potentially the public listing of landlords that incur high fines.
Traditionally, elected officials have catered to homeowners, Quercia noted.
“We have done some work that shows that homeowners are more likely to vote in local elections than renters,” he said. “So moving more to a community of renters will have a big impact for local politics.”
‘The No. 1 issue in every single market’
Barbara Brown (no relation to Tanya) lived, until recently, in a Hi View apartment with a leaky roof. When it rained outside, steady streams of water entered her kitchen and bathroom.
Following the formation of the tenant council and the reporting on her situation and others by PublicSource and WESA, Hi View management moved her to another building.
“I don’t have any more rain or anything like that,” Brown said.
“I have a toilet that you flush, and the handle goes all the way around, and unless I turn it back around it’ll just keep running and running and running.” She said her drains also back up. Maintenance workers keep coming back, but the problems persist, she said.
“The heat’s working pretty good,” said Tanya Brown, but other fixes seem slow, and even the secure doors and cameras haven’t stopped unwanted visitors, drug use and misbehaving kids, she said. Some residents would like to leave, but they face a rental market with fewer affordable options, she said. Told that PNC is talking about large-scale improvements, she was skeptical. “I’ll believe it when I see it.”
Bynum said PNC is serious about its commitments to Hi View and Midtown, and about promoting affordable housing nationwide. The bank’s four-year, $88 billion community benefits plan, announced in April and set to start Jan. 1, includes affordable housing components, as well as mortgage lending and business finance geared especially toward minority communities.
Bynum said that reflects the input he’s received as he has visited PNC markets nationwide.
“The No. 1 issue in every single market that I’ve talked to people in has been the need for affordable housing, period, end of sentence.”
This content was produced with support from the Doris O’Donnell Innovations in Investigative Journalism Fellowship, awarded by the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University in Pittsburgh, PA.