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Judge: Roosevelt tenants won't have to leave damaged building Friday

A fire occurred in December at the Roosevelt Building on Penn Avenue downtown; tenants have been told they must find other housing to accommodate repairs.
Kate Giammarise
90.5 WESA
A fire occurred in December at the Roosevelt Building on Penn Avenue downtown; tenants have been told they must find other housing to accommodate repairs.

Tenants of the fire-and-water-damaged Roosevelt Building won’t have to leave their downtown apartments by Friday, following a two-day emergency court hearing and an order issued by a judge.

A deadly fire damaged the Penn Avenue apartment building in December; the property’s owner and manager had told tenants they needed to be out of the building by Friday, Jan. 13 to facilitate major building-wide repairs because of water damage.

But in an order issued late Thursday, Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Patrick Connelly said building owner LWE Roosevelt LP and property manager NDC Real Estate Management LLC cannot remove tenants or their belongings from the building.

The order also said both sides will meet again next week.

“I think we all understand what needs to happen. We all need to work together to find a place for these folks,” Connelly said Thursday, following several hours of testimony about the building’s condition and habitability.

“We need to have an orderly process to get these people placed,” he said.

A group of eight low-income tenants brought the matter to court on Wednesday in an emergency hearing, saying they needed more time to find new housing. The residents are represented by attorneys from nonprofit legal aid organizations Community Justice Project and Neighborhood Legal Services.

Jonathan Kamin, an attorney for both the owner and manager of the Roosevelt said of the 191 total units in the building — both market-rate and subsidized apartments — approximately 28 residents hadn’t communicated as to when they intended to move out. He also characterized roughly four to six residents as unaccounted for as to whether they had moved or not. He said 96 tenants have completely moved out and turned in their keys.

But attorneys for the residents said some of those who already have left did so only because they were forced out and are not stably housed.

That includes tenants like Vincent Zepp, who attended the hearing Thursday. He said he left the building because managers threatened him, saying they would call the police if he didn’t leave. He is now sleeping on a friend’s couch.

“I don’t have a place,” he said.

Much of the testimony Thursday concerned possible safety issues in the building resulting from mold or other problems caused by excessive water damage.

“There shouldn’t be anybody occupying these units,” Kamin said.

Dr. Karl Williams, Allegheny County’s Chief Medical Examiner, spoke about issues related to possible asbestos exposure in the building. He said he was speaking as an expert in occupational medical issues, and not in his capacity as a county official.

Looming over the hearing on both days was the region’s shortage of affordable housing, which Connelly acknowledged multiple times on Wednesday and Thursday.

Terri Thrower, a tenant who is still living in the building because she said she has nowhere else to go, has been trying to find other housing — to no avail.

“How do you think that whole building is going to be able to find places in that little bit of time?” she said.

Residents of the Roosevelt Building who need housing should contact the Housing Stabilization Center at 412-440-8107 or in person at 415 Seventh Avenue, from 9:30 am to 4:30 pm Monday through Friday.

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 or 412-697-2953.