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Owner Of Penn Hills Senior Community Apologizes For Lack Of Communication Over Mold Problem

Margaret J. Krauss
90.5 WESA
Todd Puhl, a regional vice president with National Church Residences, talks with the residents of Beechtree Commons on Friday, July 12, 2019.

After a year of confusion and concern, residents of a low-income senior housing community in Penn Hills met with management to discuss a protracted mold problem on Friday.

Officials from National Church Residences detailed a $1.5 million restoration plan. For nearly a year, said regional vice president Todd Puhl, it has worked with contractors and insurance carriers to address the issue.

“But you know what, we didn’t communicate with you,” he said. “We did not keep you in the loop and that is bad and I apologize for that.”

Tenants had different understandings of what caused the mold: some were told a leaking roof while others were told it had something to do with a rooftop HVAC unit. Officials clarified that condensation from an aging cooling system inside the building was the culprit.

At the start of the summer, residents were told they would not have air conditioning, for fear of spreading the mold. When residents pushed back, they were told that air conditioning is an amenity not covered by their rent. Eventually, portable AC units were purchased for each unit.

Over the next year, officials said crews will tear out the old HVAC towers, nearly 20 years old, and replace them. Mold remediation crews will remove any affected drywall and timber, and then restore the building’s 59 units to good condition.

The new HVAC units have been ordered, but will take up to eight weeks to manufacture and deliver. Once they arrive, groups of ten units at a time will be remediated. For that work, residents will be moved out of their apartments and into vacant units for roughly two months.

During the meeting, residents voiced concerns about the moving process, how long they’ll be out of their homes, and how they’ll know the mold is truly gone.

“When all the work’s completed … we’re going to have an industrial hygienist come in and take some indoor air sampling,” said Garrett Black of Belfor, a property restoration company. “If the unit doesn’t pass, we’ll have to re-clean it.”

Puhl said the local, regional and national managers are paying attention to Beechtree Commons and are committed to preserving it as a healthy, affordable home.

“You have our prayers that this is going to work. You also have our hard work behind it,” he said. “And again, we stumbled by not communicating with you, but there’s been a lot of work that’s happened behind the scenes to get us where we are today.”

Resident DeeDee Olive said she appreciated the meeting with National Church Residences.

“It answered a lot of things, and that’s what it came down to,” she said. “Finding out the answers.”

National Church first became aware of a mold problem last summer. Officials say it took a while to pinpoint the source of the problem, and to get insurance to pay for it.

The non-profit organization operates 340 housing communities across the United States. Beechtree Commons is part of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's multifamily inventory.  Residents pay 30 percent of their income for rent and HUD makes up the rest of the rent with a direct payment to the organization. 

Margaret J. Krauss is WESA’s senior reporter. She covers development and transportation, and has produced award-winning podcasts on housing, work, and Pittsburgh’s lesser-known history. Before joining the newsroom full time, she covered the challenges facing Pennsylvania cities as a statewide reporter, and spent another life as an assistant editor for National Geographic Kids Magazine in Washington, D.C. She can be reached at mkrauss@wesa.fm.
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