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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.

With PNC preparing to sell, McKeesport complex’s residents hope hard-won improvements continue

Tenant Cities McKeesport Hi View housing complex
Stephanie Strasburg
Hi View Gardens resident Bianca Dobbs demonstrates the unreliability of the door to her two bedroom apartment, Thursday, July 28, 2022, in McKeesport. The Hi View resident says she’s worried for the safety of herself and her 11 year old daughter as broken key fob readers mean entry to her building is no longer secure.

“I didn’t expect it to go this far,” Tanya Brown said as she stood outside of the Eat’n Park in McKeesport, wearing a black T-shirt with the words, “Treat yourself like a queen and you’ll attract a king.”

The restaurant is down the hill from Hi View Gardens, where residents last year elected Brown — a full-time babysitter for her great-granddaughter — as the leader of a new tenant council. She didn’t know it at the time, but that election put her across the table from PNC Bank, the nation’s sixth-largest commercial financial institution and — via a holding company — her landlord.

The Hi View Gardens Tenant Council began because tenants grew tired of winters without heat, pest infestations and disorder. They took their concerns to county and local officials, a nonprofit law firm and the media before getting to the table with the half-trillion-dollar bank.

This September evening, she was preparing for the council’s monthly meeting with the complex’s management. Those gatherings can be contentious — but Brown was smiling.

Tenant Cities McKeesport Hi View
Stephanie Strasburg
The great-granddaughter of Tanya Brown, leader of the Hi View Gardens Tenant Council, steps out of Brown’s apartment at the complex in McKeesport on July 7, 2022. Brown cares for her great-granddaughter by day and, since May 2021, has led some 100 households there in discussions with managers picked by PNC Bank, which has owned the property since 2018.

In May 2021, tenants gathered in Hi View’s courtyard with attorney Dan Vitek of the Community Justice Project and formed a council. Later that summer, they learned of PNC’s ownership from WESA and PublicSource. Following publication of stories about conditions at the properties, PNC chief corporate responsibility officer Richard Bynum promised improvements. Repair began later that year, though supply chain slowdowns hampered progress.

Days earlier, PNC told the tenants’ attorney that it would compensate them via what the bank is calling “a tenant appreciation fund.”

The catch: The payment will come from the proceeds of the bank’s intended sale of the five-building Hi View complex to an as-yet-undetermined buyer. The residents had benefited — at least since publication of stories about their plight last year by PublicSource and WESA — from the goodwill and deep resources of the Pittsburgh-based bank that owns their complex. Now that relationship appears to be approaching its end.

As cars whizzed down Lysle Boulevard, Brown said the tenants just hope that “whoever comes to manage this property and takes over this property, I want them to be a good management; don’t come in with no bullcrap.

“By it coming this far,” she said, “we’ve got to finish it.”

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Under new management

PNC’s vast portfolio includes a few dozen properties nationwide that it has purchased in an effort to preserve affordable housing.

In 2018, the bank bought two limited liability companies, McKeesport Urban Holdings 1 and McKeesport Urban Holdings 2, which own, respectively, 11-story Midtown Plaza and 117-unit Hi View Gardens. The properties are a few blocks apart and just south of Lysle, and just a half-hour drive from the bank’s Downtown headquarters.

PNC thus became ultimately responsible for sheltering nearly 200 low-income households. It left day-to-day operations, though, to Maine-based Preservation Management Inc. [PMI].

Things went downhill. In 2019 and 2020, health code violations and 911 calls at the properties jumped nearly 50% compared to the prior two years, a PublicSource and WESA investigation revealed. Resident complaints resulted in 89 Allegheny County Health Department inspection reports noting one or more housing health code violations, plus a McKeesport Fire Department finding that Hi View’s fire alarm system had been turned off.

Tenant Cities Hi View housing complex McKeesport
Stephanie Strasburg
Dan Vitek, left, an attorney with the Community Justice Project representing Hi View Gardens tenants, communicates with tenants gathered for a meeting with the NHP Foundation, NDC Asset Management managers and officers of the McKeesport Police Department in Hi View’s courtyard, Monday, July 11, 2022, in McKeesport.

In October, PNC replaced management firm PMI with the New York-based nonprofit NHP Foundation, which hired Strip District-based NDC Asset Management to handle day-to-day operations. NHP assigned Senior Vice President Fred Mitchell, a veteran of Chicago’s public housing landscape, to improve Hi View and Midtown.

‘Yes, ma’am’

By early summer, Hi View tenants were impatient.

On a hot July day, Mitchell, NDC managers and officers of the McKeesport Police Department met 14 tenant council members under the trees in Hi View’s courtyard, on folding chairs near a table laden with sandwiches and iced tea. The conversation veered from spotty security, broken key fob readers and slow maintenance response to ongoing bug infestations, drug problems and the need for a full revamp of the complex.

Tenant Cities McKeesport
Stephanie Strasburg
Hi View Gardens Tenant Council members and other residents assemble for a meeting with the NHP Foundation and NDC Asset Management managers, plus officers of the McKeesport Police Department in Hi View’s courtyard, Monday, July 11, 2022, in McKeesport.

“We got security and stuff. We got this, we got that,” Brown railed, mockingly. She wasn’t seeing improvements on the half of the complex that’s east of Coursin Street, where she lives. “We ain’t got shit over there. Nothing.”

All eyes were on Mitchell. After a pause, he said, “Yes, ma’am.”

Later in the meeting, Brown acknowledged that the problems weren’t of Mitchell’s making.

“PMI left them with nothing, y’all,” she said, amid shouted complaints and cross-talk.

After the meeting, Mitchell walked wearily across the courtyard. He knew progress toward improving the 117 units was slow — and it was only partly an issue of cost. Another challenge, he said, was “contractors not wanting to work.”

As for a total revamp, it was similarly challenging to bring all of the involved parties and funding sources to the table. His firm was working on it, he said, “but I can’t tell you that it’s imminent at all.”

Wires hanging

Bianca Dobbs dragged her 11-year-old daughter to that sweaty meeting and complained of finding an apparently intoxicated man laying in her building’s hallway.

She signed a lease for a Hi View unit last year, she said later, because she needed an affordable place close to the senior care facility where she works as a nurse’s aide. She’d intended to move there, from a family member’s home elsewhere in McKeesport, with her daughter.

“And I wasn’t able to move in for the first three months because the roach situation was so bad,” Dobbs said in an interview. When she finally did move in, she kept her belongings in clear plastic containers so she could see inside, hung clothes up so she could easily shake them out, and counter-attacked with Raid and bleach.

Tenant Cities Hi View housing complex cleaning
Stephanie Strasburg
Hi View Gardens resident Bianca Dobbs, left, sprays a cockroach with Clorox in her apartment beside her mother, Jacqueline Jenkins, Thursday, July 28, 2022, in McKeesport. Dobbs said she didn’t move into the apartment for months while she was waiting for the infestation to be brought under control, then lived out of plastic bins before the roach problem abated.

On a late July day, there was a dead roach in her kitchen. But compared to last year? “It’s nowhere near as bad,” she said.

Still, her daughter didn’t stay in Hi View often because of the security situation, she said.

Management had installed key fob readers at all entrances to Hi View’s five buildings in an effort to keep non-residents from coming and going at will. It didn’t work.

Dobbs walked out one of the doors and pointed to a smashed key fob reader.

Tenant Cities McKeesport electrical
Stephanie Strasburg
Hi View Gardens resident Bianca Dobbs points to one of the smashed key fob readers at doors to her building, Thursday, July 28, 2022, in McKeesport.

“This is what, most times, they end up looking like,” she said. Some tenants don’t like the inconvenience of walking to the doors to open them for visitors. “So of course one way to avoid that is to destroy that. And then, as you see, all open wires hanging on that.”

When the fob readers are destroyed, residents have little choice but to leave the doors propped open, allowing anyone to enter the buildings. The end result for Dobbs: “I can’t leave my daughter here.”

McKeesport police and 911 calls

In the 12 months ending in July, Hi View generated 399 calls to 911 — roughly four per occupied unit. They included 37 domestic incidents, 32 disturbances, 10 involving guns or other weapons, four gunshots and assorted thefts, trespassing and harassment incidents.

As bad as that may sound, that was a good year for Hi View. The total number of 911 calls and the tallies for some of the most serious categories were low compared to the rest of PNC’s tenure.

Mitchell said that in addition to the constant efforts to replace smashed key fob readers, NHP had added security cameras, hired a private security guard and contracted with McKeesport to provide added police patrols.

The arrangement with the police was not meeting his expectations, he told the tenants in August at a meeting at Eat’n Park.

“I think they were there one night a week,” he said. “If they’re there two hours one night a week, that’s not going to get it done.”

McKeesport Assistant Police Chief Mark Steele — who asked that WESA and PublicSource refrain from revealing precise details of the extra policing the city is providing — said the department is meeting its contractual obligations. Sometimes, he added, manpower shortages compel the department to postpone a planned special patrol for a day or two.

“They’ve made drug arrests, gun arrests, and they have the people that don’t belong up there on their toes,” he said.

Better — but for how long?

One of Hi View’s five buildings has been empty since a May 2020 fire. Under PMI, it sat unrepaired for more than a year.

According to Mitchell, that building should be fixed by year’s end. The tenant council is already mulling who should get dibs on the refurbished units.

Tenant Cities McKeesport management company
Stephanie Strasburg
A Hi View Gardens tenant looks at a sheet given out by NDC Asset Management staff during the management company’s meeting with tenant council in the apartment complex courtyard, Monday, July 11, 2022, in McKeesport. The sheet detailed projects completed in the community and their associated cost during an eight month period from November 2021 to June 2022.

Tenant Daysha Hooper wants in. Last year, she told WESA and PublicSource that she endured roaches and a faulty stove in the unit she shares with her cat, Simone.

“I don’t need more space,” she said at the council’s meeting with management in September. “I just want a fresh start.”

The entire complex may be heading for a new chapter.

At the September meeting, Mitchell said he’d recently learned from the tenants’ attorney Vitek that PNC intends to sell Hi View.

“I’m outside of that loop,” Mitchell said.

“It doesn’t change any of this,” he added, referring to the efforts to work with the tenants to improve the complex.

Tenant Cities apartment housing
Stephanie Strasburg
Hi View Gardens resident Bianca Dobbs talks of her frustration with security issues at the complex as she stands by her building doors, Thursday, July 28, 2022, in McKeesport.

PNC will sell to “a reputable firm” and not “a slumlord,” he said, noting that the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development would have to approve any sale. “We’re continuing business as normal.”

Vitek added that PNC had agreed to a “final act of compensation to the residents,” though details are still being worked out, because the bank realized that “the property was not maintained to the standard that they would expect, and that they believe residents of McKeesport should have to live in.”

In response to questions from WESA and PublicSource, a PNC spokesperson wrote that the bank confirmed plans to compensate residents and “work to find a buyer who is similarly committed to continuing to preserve affordable housing and the needs of the McKeesport community.” The bank declined to discuss specifics but noted that it’s pleased with progress at Hi View.

McKeesport Tenant Cities housing
Stephanie Strasburg
Window coverings flutter in the wind on a building shuttered since a 2020 fire at Hi View Gardens as a visiting NDC Asset Management manager walks past, Monday, July 11, 2022, in McKeesport.

The spokesperson said it was premature to discuss any plans for nearby Midtown Plaza.

Outside of Eat’n Park, Brown said she was thankful for the progress of the last year, from fresh paint to pest control.

“I’m not saying I’m satisfied, but I’m content right now,” she said.

It shouldn’t have been so hard, she added, to get to this point.

“We shouldn’t have to be forced into going out of our way, going to the Health Department, getting the chief of police and the firemen and everybody else to help us fight this,” she said.

She and her fellow tenants and their attorney had gained the attention of high-ups at a bank with vast resources, and that was paying off. Now the bank was waving goodbye.

Brown’s message to owners, current and future: “I don’t mean for you to stop doing what you’re doing.

“We’re seeing improvement and stuff, but how long?”

Read all of Tenant Cities and the initial PublicSource/WESA investigation of PNC’s McKeesport Housing.

Kate Giammarise is a reporter covering social services and affordable housing for WESA and can be reached at kgiammarise@wesa.fm or 412-697-2953.

Rich Lord is PublicSource’s managing editor and can be reached at rich@publicsource.org or on Twitter @richelord.

This story was fact-checked by Ladimir Garcia and Jack Troy.

Kate Giammarise focuses her reporting on poverty, social services and affordable housing. Before joining WESA, she covered those topics for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for nearly five years; prior to that, she spent several years in the paper’s Harrisburg bureau covering the legislature, governor and state government. She can be reached at kgiammarise@wesa.fm or 412-697-2953.