Seniors in Pittsburgh's Hill District feel trapped in substandard housing
Betty Drewery’s neighbor died this summer, just days after his toilet flooded his unit for the third time in less than a year. It flowed into the hallway, seeping into the carpet and then Drewery’s living room. It was July. The smell of sewage in the heat disgusted her, but she said no one came to clean the man’s unit.
The lack of urgency wasn’t new, Drewery said, but for her it “proved [management] didn’t care anything about the building.”
Drewery, 79, is one of several residents at Western Manor who say poor upkeep and lax security have made their home a source of stress rather than refuge; they say their repeated complaints to management, owners and elected officials haven’t changed anything. They say no one will listen or go to bat for them, a bewildering fact, given that the building has strong ties to one of the neighborhood’s strongest advocacy organizations: the Hill Community Development Corporation.
‘I feel like my mom is being abandoned’
Western Manor stands on Bedford Avenue in the Hill District. A shared driveway circles around a shaded courtyard to two other buildings, Milliones Manor and Christopher A. Smith Terrace. Each building now has its own ownership and funding structure, but all 108 units are home to low-income seniors 62 and older.
The campus used to be a tuberculosis hospital, but it had been vacant for years when Pittsburgh’s Urban Redevelopment Authority purchased the land and its buildings in 1988. Together with the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh, the mayor’s office and four community organizations — Hill Community Development Corporation, Hill House Association, Allegheny Union Baptist Association and Pittsburgh Mercy Health System — the URA pulled together what was then called the Western Restoration project.
Western Manor served as the nurses’ quarters for the old hospital. Today, 26 of its 31 units are occupied. Shirley Chavis has lived in her third-floor apartment for more than 20 years. She remembers how excited she was to move in.
“It was beautiful,” she said.
A lot has changed since then. A leak in the roof a couple of years ago damaged her living room. Mold covered the air and heat exchange in her bedroom. Management recently cleaned her vents and stopped the leak, but the new drywall has since cracked and sagged. It remains unpainted.
“They don’t do anything about anything,” she said.
Chavis’s family worries how Western Manor affects her health. Chavis, 84, has severe COPD and lung cancer, which her doctor in a letter said places her “at high risk for complications and infections,” and urged her to avoid irritants. But the interior of the onetime tuberculosis center is now pocked with cigarette butts and burns, and the smell of smoke is constant.
Latanya Chavis, Chavis’s youngest daughter, said she wants her mother to move in with her, “but she’s an independent woman,” she said. “I feel like my mom is being abandoned.”
When WESA visited Western Manor in May, exterior doors to the first-floor common room were held closed with a piece of lumber and a rolling pin. Fecal matter was smeared on the wall of a public restroom, while water stains marred the ceilings and dirt was ground into the carpets. Conditions remained largely unchanged on return visits in July and October, though by the third visit the rolling pin had been replaced with another piece of lumber.
WESA spoke with seven residents who said they never know who is in their building: the doors often are propped open and non-residents come and go, sometimes sleeping in the stairwells, they said. Some female residents said they worry about leaving their apartments in the evening. Multiple people complained to WESA of witnessing drug activity within the building.
Residents said the elevators often smell of urine, and a prolonged fight against bed bugs just subsided this spring. In the fight to eradicate them, the building’s management staff collected residents’ laundry to wash at an off-site laundromat; when the clean clothing was redistributed, many residents received the shirts, pants or underwear of other people.
“We should be kicked back at this age, you know, instead of having to battle with somebody about safety and security,” said William Harris, another resident.
But many residents don’t have the option of moving elsewhere. They have fixed incomes, and based on those, most of them pay between $200 and $400 in monthly rent in a city where the median price for a one-bedroom apartment is $975, according to an October report from Apartment List. Western Manor — and other senior buildings like it that were created through a program of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development — was intended to address exactly their predicament.
In exchange for an annual rent subsidy, Western Manor is subject to HUD’s rules and to regular inspections of such things as plumbing, heating, air conditioning, fire alarms and door locks. In May 2019, a HUD inspection gave Western Manor a score of 46 out of 100. A score of 60 or below triggers closer scrutiny from HUD.
HUD apparently found little sign that things had improved during the following two years: Western Manor failed another inspection two months ago, earning 21 out of 100 points — a decline of more than 50 percent from its previous failing score. While the inspection scores for HUD-supported buildings are publicly available, the reports themselves are not; they can be obtained only through a Freedom of Information Act request. WESA has requested those records but has not received a response. HUD generally responds to a FOIA request within 20 working days, but the agency may extend that time limit due to “exceptional circumstances.” Many federal agencies have reported backlogs in processing requests due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The building’s management company, C. Wisdom Management, gives residents a number to call to report problems or concerns. That number leads to an automated voice-mail system with a menu that includes mailbox options for other buildings the company manages, but not Western Manor.
“You don’t hear nobody human. You don’t get your problems solved,” said Jonathan Smith, who moved to Western Manor late in 2020. “This is an apartment for discarded people.”
The president and CEO of C. Wisdom Management, Charlise Smith, did not dispute what residents told WESA about Western Manor’s condition. But Smith — who is not related to resident Jonathan Smith — said that until she spoke with WESA in September, she was unaware of their grievances.
“Any issues that were brought to our attention, we’re on it,” she said. “Our mission is uplifting life and community at the same time. We're not here to be a barrier for the residents.”
For instance, Smith said management was in contact with Drewery about the sewage-soaked hallway carpet, but she acknowledged that the cleanup may not have happened as quickly as residents would have liked. “But we respond,” she said. “It takes time to get stuff done.”
The automated answering service is intended to help C. Wisdom quickly address resident concerns or issues; the messages are transcribed to emails so the whole staff can see them, Smith said. When asked why Western Manor isn’t an option on the service menu, she said that could be revisited. She also sent a letter to residents to remind them of the process, but she said low-income seniors sometimes have trouble asking for help or caring for themselves.
“We’re dealing with social issues constantly,” she said, citing as examples one resident who had dementia, and another whose behavior — which included punching walls and public drunkenness — frequently disturbed the building. “It burns people out.”
Also, Smith said her company inherited many of the problems residents complain of today.
“We had issues,” she said during a recent interview in which she was joined by her staff. “Stuff like this just [doesn’t] happen overnight.”
When C. Wisdom took over management at Western Manor in October 2019, the bed bug infestation cost more than $10,000 for the company to address, Smith said. Her company had the walls painted and the carpets cleaned, but Smith said those efforts didn’t make much of a difference; the walls and carpet already had taken a lot of use and abuse. Her company has tried to address mold issues, she said, but the building’s roof is still leaking; they’ve hired people to make repairs, but the roof needs to be replaced, she said.
Six months into the company’s contract, the coronavirus pandemic took hold. Smith said many residents then stopped paying rent, which devastated the company’s operating income, though Western Manor has received some federal rent relief.
Smith’s regional manager, Mica Dawkins, chalked up the common areas’ poor condition to non-residents and tenants with drug problems.
“When you have tenants who are using drugs or doing drugs, sometimes they will prop the door open … to let their friends in, or whoever’s coming over to party with them,” he said.
Western Manor has a zero-tolerance drug policy, but Smith and her staff said enforcing it by evicting residents would be worse for them — and for the community — because they often have nowhere to go and run the risk of homelessness.
The biggest issue, Smith and her staff agreed, is a lack of resources. HUD regulations require that a percentage of the subsidy it provides to Western Manor be set aside for building repair. But affordable-housing experts say the money often isn’t enough to cover big repairs, such as a roof replacement, that are needed as buildings age. Dawkins said they clean every day, but without proper funding, management can’t upgrade the property and “raise the morale of the tenants.”
“When you’re living in filth, you’re going to contribute to filth,” he said.
Western Manor’s residents acknowledge substance abuse occurs among some of their neighbors, but they say it’s not an excuse for the building’s poor condition.
In May, residents gathered in Western Manor’s lobby and compared notes on who they and their children had called for help: management, elected officials, the Allegheny County Health Department, the Area Agency on Aging and HUD. None of it had resulted in real changes. They began to wonder who owned Western Manor, and what they were doing.
“Who do we have?” Drewery asked her fellow tenants. “We have nobody.”
And in fact, one organization widely considered a champion for Hill District residents turned out to be linked to Western Manor’s problems.
Western Manor, Inc.
On paper, Western Manor is owned by the nonprofit organization Western Manor, Inc. But on paper is essentially the only place the organization exists.
Western Manor, Inc. has no office and no staff. It has board members, but they are expected to run only the nonprofit organization; they do not have individual responsibility for the Western Manor building. Instead, the main job of the board members is to hire a management company for the building and make sure that company does a good job. Since Western Manor, Inc. was created in 1992, its list of board members has changed many times. For 15 years, however, one name on the list has been constant: Marimba Milliones, who is now the chair/president of the organization.
Milliones is also president and CEO of a separate, far better-known, nonprofit: the Hill Community Development Corporation. The Hill CDC works to coordinate economic development in the neighborhood and to help bring the community’s 2011 master plan to life. Milliones is known for going to bat for the interests of the Hill’s residents.
Milliones’ name began to appear on tax documents for Western Manor, Inc. in 2006. But she said she didn’t remember any meetings of the Western Manor board or reports of its activities until 12 years later. “This is what happens when you decide to get involved with an organization that's really juggling and struggling,” she said, referring to what it was like at the Hill CDC in 2006. Milliones had been a board member of the CDC for a number of years when that organization hit on hard times. She and a handful of Hill District residents worked as volunteers to rebuild it. Milliones became president and CEO of the Hill CDC in 2011.
Many past board members of Western Manor, Inc. have since died or moved on. Currently, its board has two other members besides Milliones: The Rev. John Cook of the Allegheny Union Baptist Association and Daniel Wood, chief of staff for City Councilor Daniel Lavelle. Cook did not respond to requests for comment. Wood said he was on the board to serve as a monitor for city government and to report back to Lavelle.
Asked if she had an obligation to understand the responsibilities of a board member, Milliones said, “Of course you do.” But she said it wasn’t until 2018 — a dozen years after she joined Western Manor’s board — that she learned about conditions there, she said. The Hill CDC began to “tune in” to Western Manor as it researched a rehabilitation of all of the buildings — Western Manor, Milliones Manor, and Christopher A. Smith Terrace — in the former hospital complex on Bedford Avenue, she said. That project is referred to as the Bedford Senior Campus.
When asked how she could be on the board for a dozen years before realizing the condition of the property, she said, that’s “just the reality of the situation.”
But by 2018, a chorus of resident complaints was growing about conditions in the building’s common areas and their own apartments. Lavelle said his office began to field phone calls from frustrated Western Manor residents and their children “about the lack of maintenance and the upkeep.” Milliones said she and the Hill CDC began to hear about problems such as the bed bug infestation, a possible roof leak and mold issues.
“It was very clear that a number of improvements needed to be made,” Milliones said.
Up to that point, only one company had managed Western Manor: Ralph A. Falbo, Inc, primarily a real estate development firm that did some property management. One of the few projects it managed was Western Manor, said Michael Polite, who from 2009 to 2019 was the company’s chairman and CEO. Polite said he eventually purchased the company from its founder, Ralph A. Falbo.
Polite acknowledged there was an on-site management team at Western Manor for roughly two years that did not do a good job. Polite said he was not involved with the day-to-day management, but he realized the company was not fulfilling its duty when HUD failed Western Manor during its 2019 inspection. At that point, Polite said he decided to end the management contract.
“There’s pressure from HUD,” with such a low inspection score, Polite said. “I just [didn’t] have the team to do it.”
For a few years during the Falbo company’s tenure, Polite said Western Manor also had vacancies that cut into the property’s revenue, which made it harder to address problems. However, Polite rejects the idea that the Falbo company, under his direction, allowed issues to develop that persist to today. He shared with WESA the inspection report from HUD’s most recent visit to the property.
“Tripping hazards, exposed wires, holes in walls and doors,” he said. “These are not things that sort of lingered over between 2019 and 2021.”
In 2019 Milliones selected Charlise Smith and her company, C. Wisdom Management, to replace the Falbo company. Milliones said they worked hard to address residents’ concerns. Since then, she said the Hill CDC has received only one complaint about a roof leak, and no complaints about security or sanitation issues.
But after WESA interviews with Smith and Milliones about residents’ ongoing complaints, Smith resigned as the manager of the building, effective Dec. 5.
“I can’t afford to have my name messed up,” Smith said. “If I don’t have money to resolve the issues from the ownership, there’s nothing I can do.”
Milliones said Smith’s departure is in the “best interests of both organizations.” She said the Hill CDC will continue to work to address people's concerns about the building.
“Whatever resources we can put forth to remedy issues, we will,” Milliones said.
The HUD program that helped create Western Manor is called Section 202. It requires a nonprofit organization, called the “sponsor,” to apply for federal funding to create the housing. The program also requires the creation of a separate entity — one that typically doesn’t have its own staff — to actually own the project, once it is built.
That is done to insulate the nonprofit sponsor from the project, and vice versa: The collapse of one won’t necessarily drag down the other. Actual operation of the building is usually handled by a third party — either a for-profit or nonprofit.
In the case of Western Manor, the Hill CDC sponsored the project, according to HUD. The CDC then helped to create Western Manor, Inc, according to incorporation documents. At that point, the CDC ceased to have a legal responsibility for the building; a representative of Western Manor, Inc. signed all of the contracts for the project.
They just collect the fee and keep running the show.
That governance structure is used by nearly all affordable housing projects. But creating a constellation of different entities, joined by a board whose officers change and have no staff, sometimes “blurs the lines of authority,” said Jim Grow, a senior attorney with the National Housing Law Project. NHLP is a nonprofit that aims to protect the rights of tenants and to expand and preserve the country’s affordable housing options.
Grow said he isn’t familiar with Western Manor, but he said that in many cases, the board members who oversee such buildings can “just get lazy, and they don't observe the formalities. … I think that’s a real risk in these kinds of situations.”
As for the managers of such buildings, “nobody’s really looking over their shoulder,” Grow said, speaking generally. “They just collect the fee and keep running the show.” Long-term maintenance needs can be ignored while “things drift along and function, sometimes for decades,” before problems emerge, he added.
Section 202 used to be the primary way to produce senior housing in the United States, and it became particularly common in Pittsburgh, said Larry Swanson, executive director of ACTION-Housing, a prominent, nonprofit housing developer in the region. He estimated there are “well over 100” such developments in Allegheny County.
In many ways, “it was a terrific program,” Swanson said, because it created a lot of apartments for seniors with low incomes. But like most HUD programs, he added, it was not intended to exist in perpetuity. It also has had cash-flow problems, he said.
The developments were designed to produce just enough money to keep operating — generating little in the way of savings to take care of big-ticket problems, such as a new roof, that emerge over time. Combined with the diffused ownership structure, “that is a system that is likely to have some failure in it,” Swanson said.
When failures happen, he said, people often look to the original sponsor organization for help, despite the fact that it carries no legal responsibility to do so.
Speaking generally about the program and not about Western Manor, Swanson said that while boards that oversee such buildings are expected to act in their best interest, those boards are typically made up of community members who don’t have individual responsibility for the buildings and “are not people whose business is to operate real estate.”
So in a crisis, the sponsor organizations were expected to “step up and provide help and assistance, including money, to sustain the project,” he said. “It’s a moral obligation,” rather than a legal one, he said.
And in the case of Western Manor, Milliones said the Hill CDC decided to “step up … to try to respond to the immediate concerns.”
At that point the Hill CDC sent a letter to residents at Western Manor to explain that they were the sponsor of the building, she said.
Bedford senior campus
For the past three years, Milliones said, she has been searching for money to address the building’s needs, as well as those of the larger senior campus.
The Hill CDC’s plan, which carries an estimated price tag of $20 million, would restore the existing three buildings in the Bedford Senior Campus — Western Manor, Milliones Manor and Christopher A. Smith Terrace — as well as build additional senior units on adjacent land currently owned by the URA. An assessment of Western Manor conducted this year estimates its rehabilitation alone would cost between $1.8 and $3 million. One possible funding source for the larger project is low-income housing tax credits.
The Hill CDC has a familiar partner in the effort: Michael Polite, who led Ralph A. Falbo, Inc. while the firm managed Western Manor.
Polite is now an executive vice president for a Boston-based development and management company, Beacon Communities. He said he has been talking with the Hill CDC about rehabilitation work on the Bedford Senior Campus since 2018; Beacon Communities is the Hill CDC’s presumptive development partner, Milliones said.
Depending on how the development advances, it is likely Beacon and the Hill CDC would create a new organization to own the redeveloped campus. In June, the URA board supported the idea and approved $16 million in bonds for the project, if other funding from the state comes in. Such an action would still require the URA board’s final approval.
In the interim, Milliones said she is in regular contact with the URA to discuss emergency funding for Western Manor to address the immediate concerns of the residents.
Jeff Bachman, the Hill CDC’s director of neighborhood development, said he was comfortable with Polite being involved with Western Manor again — even though the building struggled during Polite’s tenure at the company.
“Mike is a very good developer,” said Bachman. And while he acknowledged Polite is “maybe not as sensitive to ... property management,” CDC officials note that Polite would not personally be involved in the future management of the campus: Beacon has a separate division for that.
When asked if it had misgivings about Polite’s or the Hill CDC’s track record at Western Manor, the URA issued a statement that said, “the URA’s primary concern is with the health, safety and well-being of senior residents.” In addition, the statement said the agency is focused on how to help “resolve the outstanding issues that threaten to displace current residents.”
But some residents said it's hard to imagine a revived Western Manor, given the building’s current condition and the issues reflected by HUD inspection ratings that have gone from bad to worse.
Jonathan Smith has since been moved to a new apartment at Western Manor, but on the advice of his lawyer, he declined to comment further. He said he would pass contact information for WESA to his attorney if he chose to comment; the lawyer did not respond.
Chavis, whose wall remains cracked and unpainted, ended up in the hospital after a fall a few weeks ago. After telling her children that she’d rather stay in the hospital than “go back to that filthy place,” she will live with her youngest daughter, Latanya Chavis, after being discharged.
Betty Drewery is also leaving. She said she can’t blame the building’s managers entirely because management relies on whatever the owner provides. “Poor owners, poor landlords,” she said.
Drewery plans to move in with her son before the end of October.