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Identity & Community
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.

Facing Roaches, Rodents, Leaks And Balky Heat And Fire Alarm Systems, Fed-Up Tenants Of PNC Bank's McKeesport Complexes Demand Change

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Ryan Loew
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PublicSource
A resident of Hi View Gardens and her young son, seen through a gate, cross the main parking lot of the five-building McKeesport complex. One building — to the right — is empty following a 2020 fire.

Kids dashed and footballs flew around the sunny courtyard of Hi View Gardens as a dozen tenants of the McKeesport apartment complex gathered by concrete steps to challenge a mysteriously named landlord with resources they could only guess at.

For three years, they’d watched their 117-apartment community deteriorate and had complained individually to managers hired to run Hi View by a landlord referred to on property records as McKeesport Urban Holdings 2 LLC.

They’d placed buckets below leaky roofs and plumbing.

They’d fired up stoves when the radiators failed.

They’d endured roaches and rodents.

They’d called 911 when harassed, assaulted or shot at by intruders.

Finally, on May 12, the tenants – mostly Black or Brown women – were getting organized.

“Get us our maintenance people. Give us somebody in our office who knows what they’re doing. And get our apartments together,” tenant leader Tanya Brown summarized, as they discussed the petition they planned to circulate and present to the management company and landlord.

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Ryan Loew

That day, they founded the Hi View Gardens Tenant Council, represented by attorneys at the Community Justice Project, a nonprofit legal assistance firm. They signed the petition demanding that unnamed owners make Hi View a “safe, affordable and welcoming place to live,” rather than one where residents were treated “with a lack of respect and dignity.”

The tenants didn’t know it then, but responsibility for their housing ultimately rests with the nation’s seventh-largest commercial bank, one with nearly half a trillion dollars in assets that has taken a deep interest in affordable housing.

In May 2018, PNC Bank bought McKeesport Urban Holdings 2 and thus Hi View. It simultaneously bought McKeesport Urban Holdings 1, which owns the 11-story Midtown Plaza, two blocks from Hi View.

The Pittsburgh area “is home for PNC, and the idea of preserving existing affordable housing for the residents of Pittsburgh was very appealing,” said Todd Crow, the bank's executive vice president in charge of tax credit solutions, a department that includes affordable housing investments. “Basically, we saw the potential that this property could be lost as affordable rental housing,” he said. But if PNC became the owner, it could instead help current residents to stay.

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Ryan Loew
Hi View Gardens, McKeesport.

He acknowledged that the bank’s efforts have faced setbacks, driven by governmental decisions and the pandemic. He said maintenance backlogs are being addressed and redevelopment plans are in the works.

After PNC bought property in McKeesport, the bank contacted local officials “right off the bat,” said the city’s Community Development Director A.J. Tedesco Jr.

"They said, 'We're going to work with you, we're going to change the culture of those buildings and we're going to make them nice and do all this,'" Tedesco said in a June interview.

In 2019 and 2020, though, health code violations and 911 calls at Hi View and Midtown jumped nearly 50% compared to the prior two years, driving some of the nearly 200 households to search — often in vain — for other housing options.

Said Tedesco: "So it seems to have really gone downhill since their initial takeover.”

From ‘beautiful’ to ‘unfair’

For Tanya Brown, the five-building Hi View Gardens complex, one block off of McKeesport’s main drag, seemed like a fine place in 2012 to pursue her recovery from alcoholism.

“It was beautiful here,” she said, as she held her great-granddaughter in her lap. “We had maintenance men, [who] cleaned up the property and stuff ... It was the atmosphere where people wanted to live, you know, and it was all right.”

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Ryan Loew
Hi View Gardens consists of 117 apartments split among five buildings.

In 2019 she started seeing maintenance decline, and she eventually began complaining to the Allegheny County Health Department. Inspectors visiting her unit and building found:

As it typically does when it finds a violation, the department demanded that the owner listed in property records — in this case McKeesport Urban Holdings 2 — repair the problems. It sent the report to the Hi View office staffed by Maine-based Preservation Management Inc. [PMI], which handles day-to-day operations of that complex and Midtown Plaza. There is no sign in the documents that the Health Department knew of PNC’s ownership or directly alerted the bank to the violations.

PMI did not respond to interview requests.

PublicSource and WESA reviewed Health Department data and around 800 documents — including 89 inspection reports noting one or more violations — describing the county’s handling of health complaints in Hi View and Midtown.

Combined, Hi View and Midtown amount to around 5% of McKeesport’s 4,400 rental units. From 2017 through 2019, they typically accounted for around 10% of that city's housing health code violations. Last year, the 143 housing health code violations found in Hi View and Midtown accounted for 42% of such violations logged by the county in that city.

Last year, Health Department inspectors responding to complaints from Hi View and Midtown found:

  • 9 violations for floors that weren’t disinfected following sewage contamination
  • 12 for cockroach or rodent infestations
  • 15 for leaky ceilings
  • 15 for unclean common areas
  • 23 related to lack of heating, including seven findings against occupants who were using gas stoves to stay warm.

Some of the violations stemmed from inspections of the same apartment on different dates.

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Ryan Loew
Yajaira Vazquez moved into Hi View Gardens in early 2018. By November of that year, the mother of four children under 10 was experiencing a leak coming through the ceiling above her toilet, especially when the upstairs neighbor flushed, she said. In January and March of this year, Health Department inspectors reported that part of Vazquez’s floor "caved in," there were holes and bubbling paint on her ceiling, outlets weren't properly covered and the dumpster was overflowing. She has applied for a housing voucher in hopes of moving out.

Dan Vitek, the Community Justice Project lawyer representing the Hi View tenants, said he got involved because three other attorneys and one community organization alerted him to the unusually high levels of complaints voiced by residents.

He added that between federal subsidies and tenant payments, Hi View management can charge $1,200 for a three-bedroom apartment, and the quality of the housing should reflect that.

He added that he doesn't believe Hi View is "representative of subsidized housing within the Allegheny County market."

Crow, of PNC, said the pandemic had “a profound impact on our affordable housing properties,” adding that they “held up very well.”

He said the pandemic and related restrictions:

  • Prompted some residents to decline to allow maintenance teams into apartments
  • Disrupted pest extermination schedules
  • Made it harder to buy supplies and equipment, including boilers needed to fix the heating system at Hi View.

Crow said much of the maintenance backlog has been cleared. He added that he had “tremendous sympathy” for residents who endured periods with no air conditioning or heat, and that management provided space heaters and offered residents temporary hotel stays.

“Our understanding is that the property management team got those problems fixed as quickly as supply chains would permit,” he said.

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Ryan Loew
Andres Serrano lives with his mother in Midtown Plaza. Because one or the other of the elevators in the 11-floor building is frequently out of service, his mother must frequently wait in her wheelchair for as long as half an hour to leave the building. County 911 logs show 42 calls in 2019 and 2020 from people requiring rescue from elevators in Midtown and nearby Hi View Gardens – up from a total of 10 in 2017 and 2018. Serrano’s bedroom included a section of ceiling and carpet that were soaked from wall to wall, a condition that he said continued for a year before he and his mother were transferred one floor up on June 28.

Brown said she doesn’t believe the pandemic justifies the persistent problems.

“This was going on way before the COVID — way before the COVID,” she said. The landlord, she said, should learn what tenants have endured.

“If they can go home, have nice heat and stuff like that and feel comfort at home, but they don't give a shit about the tenants, it is unfair,” she said. “It's unfair.”

A plan to invest, a duty to maintain

When PNC bought the limited liability companies that own Hi View and Midtown, the Pittsburgh-headquartered bank took a stake in one of Allegheny County’s most delicately balanced housing markets.

McKeesport, a city in which roughly half of the children are growing up in poverty, has 9,000 occupied housing units split almost evenly between rented and owner-occupied homes.

Hi View and Midtown both stem from land sales by the Redevelopment Authority of the City of McKeesport to private developers, the first in 1969, the second in 1974. It was a time when federal housing policy was moving away from public ownership of affordable apartments and toward the model known as Section 8.

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Ryan Loew
In May 2018, PNC Bank bought McKeesport Urban Holdings 1, which owns the 11-story Midtown Plaza, located two blocks from Hi View Gardens.

Section 8 vouchers allow low-income tenants — the vast majority of whom are elderly, disabled or working low-wage jobs — to pay 30% of their incomes as rent, with the federal government covering the balance.

From 1974 to 1983, the federal government gave landlords and developers Section 8 subsidies to build or renovate housing, as long as they pledged to rent units to low-income families for 40 years and passed periodic inspections by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development [HUD]. The federal government replaced that program in 1986 with the low-income housing tax credit program, which allows institutions to invest in affordable housing in return for reduced tax bills.

In its most recent Community Reinvestment Act report, released in 2018, PNC indicated that it had made 102 investments totaling $780.8 million in development backed by tax credits. Through various partnerships, it owns affordable housing properties in around 30 communities nationwide.

Hi View and Midtown were backed by Section 8 subsidies and were owned until 2018 by a New York-based businessman named Israel Gross. PNC learned that the federal Section 8 contracts that control rents at those properties were set to expire in 2021.

“Our concern was that a competing buyer could step in, buy these properties and choose not to extend the rental assistance contract in order to raise rents, likely displacing residents,” said Crow. He said the bank extended an existing contract with HUD, governing the affordability of some of the units, by 10 years.

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Ryan Loew
A walkway between two of the five buildings of Hi View Gardens in McKeesport.

Responsibility for day-to-day operations at the properties was assigned to Maine-based PMI, which runs affordable, government-subsidized apartments in 20 states, including 18 sites in Pennsylvania.

In 2019, PNC and a development team led by Maine-based Evergreen Partners and including PMI applied through the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency for $11.4 million in low-income housing tax credits. They planned to use the credits in an $18 million effort to renovate both the site and all apartments and preserve the affordability of Hi View. Amid intense competition for credits, PHFA denied the application.

PNC had planned to reapply for tax credits for Hi View this year and for Midtown next year, according to Crow. A May 2020 fire, though, left one of the Hi View buildings uninhabitable and may affect that timetable. He said the bank is in talks with nonprofit developers about renovating both Hi View and Midtown, while keeping them affordable for the long term.

It’s not uncommon for a company buying an affordable apartment complex to take a year or two — sometimes three — to line up financing and fix it up, said Denise Muha, executive director of the National Leased Housing Association, which represents companies involved in the affordable rental sector.

The wait for financing, she added, doesn’t absolve them of one responsibility: “They still have to maintain it.”

More calls for emergencies — but fewer fire alarms

Rhadia Hill, a security guard who is pregnant, came to Hi View in January 2018.

“When I first moved in, it was actually, it was nice,” she said. “When we got new management, that's when things started going downhill.”

Someone shattered her sliding glass patio door in May 2020 while breaking into her apartment, she said. Management replaced it with a piece of plywood.

Eleven months later, a Health Department inspector, on scene to investigate a complaint about failed heating, noted: "Broken/missing glass in door(s). ... The temporary covered up plank to the broken glass door is not weathertight." On April 27, the department wrote to Hi View's manager, threatening a $2,500 fine if the door wasn’t fixed.

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Ryan Loew
“When I first moved in, it was actually, it was nice,” said Rhadia Hill, a Hi View Gardens tenant who works as a security guard. “When we got new management, that's when things started going downhill.”

By early July, though, the board was still in place. Just inside, paint bubbled and a canvas painting of a cross was turning brown. Hill blamed water infiltration.

She said that she has repeatedly asked for repairs, and a PMI manager made multiple excuses: that a new door had been ordered, that maintenance was too short-staffed to replace it, and at one point that the manager “doesn't have money for the door.”

So Hill returns from work daily to await her baby in an apartment with a plywood door that she calls “very flimsy ... Anybody could just rip it off and come break into my home again.”

In 2019 and 2020 — the first two full years of PNC's control — Hi View and Midtown generated 2,062 calls to Allegheny County’s 911 system. That’s a 46% jump from the 2017-18 total. Calls for falls, harassment or threats, drugs and gun or weapon incidents more than doubled.

Hill echoed other tenants' concerns that Hi View has no security guards and doors into the building hallways don’t lock.

"You don't need a key fob or anything to get in here like you do with any other apartment complex around McKeesport," she said. "So I feel that that's why people hang out in the hallways, and they do what they do ... It's usually a lot of people that do not live on the premises.”

Next to Hi View stands McKeesport Towers, a senior citizen apartment building owned by the McKeesport Housing Authority. In September, spurred by concerns that Hi View’s security problems could affect the seniors, the authority began spending $2,072 a week to post guards, 16 hours per day.

In Hi View and Midtown, one major category of 911 calls declined: fire alarms.

"We've had issues with the fire alarm system having been taken offline due to malfunction," said McKeesport Fire Chief Jeffrey Tomovcsik. "So then we have to put them on notice and force them to fix the alarm system. And it seems to be patchwork repairs, nothing that's ever really corrected the problem.”

On Jan. 29, according to McKeesport records, building inspectors responding to an anonymous tip found that fire alarm systems weren't working in any of Hi View's buildings and ordered that they be fixed "immediately." Inspectors confirmed that the system was working on Feb. 16.

“We've been fortunate,” said Tomovcsik. “We haven't had any loss-of-life incidents, which is huge."

“And let's remember, they're fixing things to get to the minimum requirements,” Tedesco said. “They have not done anything to exceed minimum safety requirements or to make the buildings nicer.”

Residents say they feel trapped in an unsafe place.

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Ryan Loew
Hi View Gardens resident Daysha Hooper cleans off the paws of her kitten Simone after the cat ran through bleach in Hooper's kitchen. Hooper said she had cleaned the floor with bleach after seeing a roach.

Daysha Hooper, 25, who has lived all her life in Hi View, said it took her six months to get management to replace a stove that wouldn’t turn off and repeatedly caught fire.

“If it was my choice to move, if I had help, I would move. But some people don't have help so some people have to stay where they're at,” she said. “There's, like, no housing.”

What will PNC do?

Told by WESA and PublicSource that Hi View residents were organizing a tenant council, Crow said PNC encourages the formation of resident groups.

“We have found that tenant councils actually improve communication with the residents,” he said.

Told that their landlord was PNC, several tenant council members said they were shocked.

“What? PNC Bank owns it now?” said Barbara Brown, a retiree who moved to Hi View in 2018. “That’s amazing ... They’re my bank! They’re the ones that hold all my money. So what are they going to do?”

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Ryan Loew
Barbara Brown, a retiree who moved to Hi View in 2018, points to a spot in the kitchen of her Hi View Gardens apartment where water comes in during rainstorms.

As she walked from her apartment toward Tanya Brown’s back porch for a July 8 tenant council meeting, Barbara (who is not related to Tanya) said she was determined to find a new home, perhaps in Duquesne, by Aug. 1.

She had endured winters with intermittent heat other than space heaters and a persistently leaky roof. A December Health Department inspection report documented the bubbling and peeling paint on her ceiling and walls, mold in the kitchen cabinet and leaks into her bathroom.

“You couldn't even sit on the john,” she said, “without worrying about getting wet. You might have to sit with an umbrella.”

At the tenant council meeting, attorney Vitek and six residents clustered around a plastic table, mulling whether they should demand inspections of every unit to make a comprehensive list of Hi View’s maintenance problems.

Or perhaps they should take their concerns to elected officials.

Or how about asking for rebates for rent they paid during months when they had no central heat?

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Ryan Loew
Dan Vitek (right), staff attorney with the Community Justice Project, meets with Hi View tenants on July 8, 2021, alongside Brendan Renne, a summer associate with the organization.

Tanya Brown said she was a reluctant spokeswoman for the tenants but was leading the charge “for all of these other parents around here that got kids and stuff.”

As the meeting wound down, she took her smiling great-granddaughter from her granddaughter’s hands. Asked what she wanted from PNC Bank, she said her first priority was just to communicate.

“Talk to us! Talk to us!” she said. “Why don’t they bring their behinds out here and talk to us?”

Rich Lord is PublicSource’s economic development reporter, and can be reached at rich@publicsource.org or on Twitter @richelord.

Ryan Loew is PublicSource’s visual storyteller/producer and can be reached at ryan@publicsource.org or on Twitter @ryanloew.

Kate Giammarise is a reporter covering the impact of COVID-19 on the economy for WESA, and can be reached at kgiammarise@wesa.fm or 412-697-2953.

PublicSource intern Xiaohan Liu contributed to data analysis and visualization. Point Park University student Nick Tommarello contributed to document processing and reporting.

This story was fact-checked by Matt Maielli and Oliver Morrison.

This content was produced with support from the Doris O'Donnell Innovations in Investigative Journalism Fellowship, awarded by the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University in Pittsburgh, PA.