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'It's a roof over my head, and I thank God for it': Displaced Downtown residents reflect after fire

A brick building with a hanging metal sign.
Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
The Roosevelt Building in Downtown Pittsburgh.

Like many former residents of the Roosevelt Building, Vincent Zepp enjoyed living in Downtown Pittsburgh.

He liked stepping out of his apartment and seeing the skyscrapers, and taking walks to the nearby Strip District.

But Zepp, along with more than 100 of his neighbors, was among those displaced after a December fire and a subsequent renovation. 

It's unclear if former residents at the Roosevelt who lived in subsidized apartments will be able to return back after repairs are completed.

Zepp now lives in suburban Forest Hills.

It’s a nice place, he says, though it doesn’t have the amenities or feel of where he used to live. When he takes his walks to the Strip District now, he has to take a bus into town first.

“Sometimes you live in places that you've chosen… And then sometimes you find yourself having to accept places to live because that's what the situation calls for, right? So that's what happened,” he said.

Months after the fire, many other former Roosevelt residents are also still adjusting to their new homes. Many of the elderly residents do not drive or own cars. Some, like Zepp, now live in suburbs with fewer transit options and less access to services and Downtown amenities.

A white piece of paper on a glass door covered in brown paper.
Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
The closed entrance to the Roosevelt Building in Downtown Pittsburgh.

After the fire

Following the December fire, the building’s management told tenants they would have to leave by Jan. 13 — a three-week deadline to find new housing. Water damage from the fire was so serious, management said, that the structure needed to be totally renovated.

Days before that deadline, legal aid attorneys from Community Justice Project and Neighborhood Legal Services took building owner LWE Roosevelt LP and property manager NDC Real Estate Management LLC to court to delay the move-outs, and to allow low-income residents more time to find other housing.

More than 100 of the 191 apartments at the Roosevelt were subsidized through a federal housing assistance program, according to the residents’ court filing. And the occupants had few options: The region’s affordable housing supply is extremely limited, the residents’ attorneys argued, and people needed more than a few weeks to find other homes.

A Common Pleas Court judge allowed tenants more time to search for affordable apartments; the remaining residents gradually moved out this spring.

“There are very long waiting lists at most properties that offer affordable housing,” said Dan Vitek, one of the attorneys who filed the litigation. “And it took a lot of community involvement from nonprofits, to the city, to the county Department of Human Services to help find housing, get through the red tape, and get people into affordable housing quickly.”

A metal sign hangs over a building while a woman walks underneath.
Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
The Downtown Pittsburgh Roosevelt Building.

Moving to the suburbs

Many residents ended up outside of the city, said Abby Rae LaCombe, executive director of RentHelpPGH. The group was part of the coalition of nonprofits, subsidized landlords, and social-service officials who assisted tenants.

“Quite a few [former residents] want to come back to Downtown as soon as they're able,” LaCombe said. “Others have found new locations that actually seem to be working out really well for them, and they're pretty content in the new place.”

Dionne Philmore is a caretaker for her aunt, age 100, a former Roosevelt resident who now lives in an apartment in the West End.

Philmore says her aunt misses the atmosphere of Downtown, as well as its walkability.

She’ll sometimes still visit Market Square to eat lunch or sit outside, Philmore said.

“She wanted to stay Downtown,” she said. “And when all of this happened, she can't afford to stay Downtown because of the increased cost of living… She had a very social life Downtown, and that's what she enjoyed the most about it.”

The fire and subsequent move, said Philmore, “changed her whole life.”

Keeping affordable options Downtown is important, particularly because it is so well-served by transit, said Vitek, the attorney.

“People like to live Downtown where there's lots of amenities and people come together for community events and just to be around each other and socialize.,” he added. “That's a very important part of being happy. And everyone should be able to enjoy that, even if they're on a fixed income.”

A sign on a glass door.
Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
The Roosevelt Building in Downtown Pittsburgh.

‘It’s a roof over my head’

One of the residents who does like her new home is Sharon Mitchell.

A Roosevelt resident for 12 years, she’s now in an apartment in Lawrenceville.

“I feel safe and comfortable,” she said. “You know, I could use a little bit more space because I'm living out of boxes because the apartment is much smaller than what I had. But it's a roof over my head, and I thank God for it.”

It’s unclear if former Roosevelt residents will be able to return to the building after the renovations, or if the property will remain partially subsidized.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development said in a statement it “will continue to monitor the progress of the building as well as the displaced residents.” But the agency deflected questions about if the property would remain partly subsidized, or if former tenants would be allowed to return after repairs. It referred those questions to the property’s manager and owner, who did not respond to questions.

Mitchell has kept up with many of her former neighbors. But she worries about the ones she no longer hears from.

“Some of them are outside the city,” she said. “Just a lot of people didn't have the finances to do what needed to be done. They're the ones that I'm not in touch with. I really wonder how they survived through this.”

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.