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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.

'We Can't Sleep Since Then.' How Faulty Heating And A Bullet Meant Months Of Conflict And Heartache For One Of PNC Bank's McKeesport Tenants

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Ryan Loew
Beatrice Román carries belongings to a new apartment in Hi View Gardens on June 10, 2021.

Jan. 13, 2021: A cold start to a hard year

When the Allegheny County Health Department inspector arrived at the apartment Beatrice Román shared with her two sons, the indoor temperature was 62.9 degrees. The baseboard heater wasn’t operating, and space heaters weren’t cutting it. “Repair or replace the heating system,” the inspector wrote, characterizing the situation, in red type, as an “EMERGENCY.”

The inspector also reported a leak in the ceiling, peeling or bubbling paint and missing ceiling tiles, a trash-strewn common laundry room and “a big hole in the wall next to apartment 404 along the hallway that may permit rodent entry into the unit.”

That inspection, which occurred after Román complained to Hi View management and then contacted the Health Department, marked the beginning of six months of tension between the Puerto Rico native and management company Preservation Management Inc. PMI, which did not respond to requests for comment, runs Hi View and nearby Midtown Plaza. PNC bought those properties, totaling around 200 apartments, in 2018 as part of that institution’s bid to preserve affordable housing.

Ryan Loew
A hole in a wall in a hallway is seen near Beatrice Román's Hi View Gardens apartment on May 28, 2021. In January, an Allegheny County Health Department inspector reported: "There is a big hole in the wall next to apartment 404 along the hallway that may permit rodent entry into the unit."

Román, 37, is a high school graduate who said she left Puerto Rico because she felt unsafe, and then departed New Jersey because the cost of living was too high. She told parts of her story to WESA and PublicSource in English and parts through translator and paralegal Rafael Bullones, of the Community Justice Project, a nonprofit law office representing her and the new Hi View Gardens Tenant Council.

On the recommendation of a family member, Román moved to Hi View in 2019 with sons Jerremy, now 17, and Kelvyn, 4. They rely on Supplemental Security Income and the federal rent subsidy that covers part of the rent for many low-income tenants who live in Hi View.

An immaculate housekeeper, Román moves through a soundscape of Spanish-language TV, a burbling fish tank, the skittering feet of their dog, Daisy, and Kelvyn’s high-pitched trilling. The 4-year-old is quick to smile, take someone’s hand, climb on to a lap or give a hug but doesn’t yet say more than a few simple words.

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Ryan Loew
Beatrice Román in her 4-year-old son Kelvyn's bedroom.

Feb. 16, 2021: The Health Department turns up the heat on the landlord

A month after the initial inspection, the heat still wasn’t working in Román’s apartment, according to Health Department documents. On that date, the department hit PMI and Hi View's owner — McKeesport Urban Holdings 2 LLC, which PNC bought in 2018 — with a $2,500 penalty, and a threat of $250 more per day if the heat wasn't restored.

(On April 16, the department filed a judgment in Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas, indicating that the $2,500 penalty had neither been appealed nor paid, and suggesting that the heat had eventually been restored.)

The preceding recent inspection report indicated that there was continued evidence of water leaking through the ceiling. Because Kelvyn often crawls and touches everything, the leaks compelled Román to “be cleaning like crazy,” she said.

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Ryan Loew
A bullet hole is seen in the sliding glass door of Beatrice Román's Hi View Gardens apartment on May 28, 2021. She and her two children lived in the apartment with the pierced door from March 16 through June 11.

March 16, 2021: A bullet shatters the delicate calm

Before the sun came up, someone fired a bullet into Román’s apartment, blowing holes in her sliding glass door, the curtain and the ceiling.

She called the police, named a suspect and got a protection from abuse order. The suspect was criminally charged but promptly posted bond, and Román knew that a PFA wouldn’t shield her, or her sons, from any repeat attempt.

She alerted Hi View’s management to the incident and asked for a transfer to another apartment — one hidden from the street from which the bullet was fired.

“We can’t sleep since then,” Román said in late May. At that point, she’d been granted no transfer, and there had been no repair to the bullet-pierced glass, let alone the ceiling or curtain.

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Ryan Loew
`An insect crawls along the tub in the bathroom of a Hi View Gardens apartment offered to Beatrice Román.

June 2, 2021: A new place ... with bugs

Eleven weeks after a bullet crashed through her sliding glass door, Hi View management finally gave Román the key to a different apartment. She, her kids and a friend went to check it out.

The sliding glass door looked out on a small lawn, perfect for Daisy, and a patch of woods. Román noted that there was no street from which anyone could shoot at her. But then she started looking around.

She discovered water damage to the cabinets, hidden under a loose sheet of linoleum. Face plates on the baseboard heaters that were not secured, and fell off with just a touch, potentially exposing the heating element to Kelvyn’s fingers and toes. A dead bug behind the stove. A live bug crawling around the bathtub.

Cockroaches could exacerbate Kelvyn’s asthma, she fretted. She tried to balance that against the insecurity she felt in her original apartment. What was she going to do?

“I don’t know,” she said.

June 9, 2021: ‘The only thing I need, time, that’s it.’

Román accepted the key to the new apartment. Hi View management had assured that it had been fumigated, and that the maintenance crew had fixed the cabinets.

The face plates on the baseboard heaters, though, were not repaired. She said she was told that would have to wait until the landlord and manager “fix the whole place, they don’t know when.”

After getting the key late on a Wednesday afternoon, she and Jerremy started to move their possessions from their old apartment, across the courtyard, down some stairs and into the new unit. She couldn’t leave Kelvyn alone, though, so it was slow going.

Ryan Loew
Beatrice Román and her son Jerremy move clothes to their new apartment in Hi View Gardens on June 10, 2021.

She said management told her she had to have everything out of her old apartment by Friday. “But how can you only give me two days?” she said, as Kelvyn played in a pile of cushions on the floor. “It’s hard when you have that little kid.”

They were making progress, but there was much left to move, she said. “The only thing I need, time, that’s it.”

June 12, 2021: Tears and changed locks

As Kelvyn ripped pages from a coloring book on a Saturday morning, his mother sat at the table in the dining room of their new apartment, weeping from the strain of the prior two days.

Thursday’s rains had slowed their move. On Friday, she’d criss-crossed the complex some 20 times, she said, with shopping bags full of belongings in each hand, and sometimes with Kelvyn on her back. Most of the time, she had only Jerremy to help.

“Sometimes I hurt myself, cut myself,” said Jerremy. “But I kept on moving all her stuff.”

Román had asked Hi View’s manager for one more day to finish the move but had been denied.

At 4:05 p.m., the manager called and said she’d have to turn in the key by 4:30 p.m., or the company would charge her more than $1,000.

That started a frantic effort to empty the old apartment. Román, Jerremy and a few friends threw things out of the windows. In the rush, they broke Román’s bed frame, which they then abandoned.

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Ryan Loew
Beatrice Román's 4-year-old son Kelvyn's bedroom in their new apartment at Hi View Gardens.

They weren’t yet able to remove Jerremy’s dresser, containing clothing and his anti-allergy EpiPens, when maintenance staff arrived, demanded the key and promptly changed the locks.

After that, Román stopped moving and wept, she recounted on Saturday. It wasn’t only that she’d failed to move some of Jerremy’s belongings after he had worked with her through two tough days. She also felt humiliated. She wondered whether management had watched, through security cameras, as she’d traversed the courtyard time after time, often with Kelvyn on her back.

Jerremy was philosophical.

“We didn’t have a lot of time, with [management] bothering us and saying stuff, and then the workers came early to change the locks,” he said. “But at the end of the day, it’s just stuff we can get back.”

July 8, 2021: A lost dresser and a missed deadline

Román walked across Hi View’s parking lot with paperwork in her hand from the Allegheny County Housing Authority. The papers said she was eligible for a Section 8 voucher — a rent subsidy that would allow her to shop around for affordable housing outside of Hi View. But the papers were dated June 22 and gave her a deadline of July 2. They had been addressed to her old apartment and reached her six days too late.

Returning to her new apartment, Román was met by a smiling Kelvyn, but she could not mirror his mood. She said she had asked to retrieve Jerremy’s dresser from her old apartment, but hadn’t been able to. She believed their remaining belongings had been tossed into the trash.

Jerremy said he wasn’t too worried about his stuff, though he’d lost some shoes, his middle school diploma and his work permit. He and his mother were working on replacing the EpiPens.

Román had that on her mental to-do list. She also wondered if she could line up a translator, call the housing authority and get an extension on the deadline for the Section 8 paperwork. The problems with the landlord, she said, were “too much.”

“I want to move,” she said. “I don’t want to be here no more.”

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

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

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.

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.

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.
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