At least eight residents of a long-beleaguered apartment complex in Penn Hills will be forced to move out by Monday – the same day a moratorium that has protected Pennsylvania renters from eviction during the coronavirus crisis is set to expire.
On Wednesday, Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Christine Ward ordered the residents to leave Valmar Gardens Community, saying that safety issues had rendered the four-building property “unsalvageable," unless it's completely gutted.
"I am concerned that somebody is going to get seriously hurt or killed by a fire or some other mishap at the building," Ward said. The decision will affect three tenants who have remined in the building, along with at least five other occupants who do not have leases.
Penn Hills officials said in recent years, at least two fires had broken out at Valmar Gardens, located on busy Robinson Boulevard. Today, many of the buildings' windows are boarded up or broken in, and while residents have taken charge of cutting the grass and making repairs, rubbish lies strewn about the driveway. The residents now live in just one of the complex’s four buildings for safety reasons.
The desperation had been mounting for years, during which financial woes, utility shutoffs, theft, and vandalism bedeviled the complex.
“The time has come. We’re at the end of the road,” Ward said as she announced her ruling Wednesday. “At this point in time, I think safety concerns are paramount, and I think treating people with dignity in this situation means moving them out of that building.”
Ward’s decision comes just after Gov. Tom Wolf said he cannot legally extend the state's eviction moratorium –which was insitituted in the spring as a response to the coronavirus and which applies to people who do not pay rent – beyond Monday. It is not clear whether the moratorium would have helped those at Valmar Gardens anyway, because it applies to nonpayment of rent, rather than cases involving issues such as property damage or illegal activity.
In letters filed with the court last week, residents of Valmar Gardens said the pandemic has prevented them from finding new homes. They said landlords have not scheduled viewings with them since the virus hit, and that the eviction freeze has stopped tenants from moving out and, thus, reduced the supply of affordable housing.
At Wednesday’s hearing, tenant Sharon Grace said that although she has found a new apartment, she cannot move in until November. Douglas Murry, a housing case manager at Pittsburgh Mercy’s Operation Safety Net, said Grace must wait until the moratoriom lapses, when her new landlord can evict another tenant to free up her unit.
On Wednesday, Ward acknowledged the “catch-22,” but she suggested that displaced tenants stay at shelters until they can secure permanent housing.
Three-year Valmar Gardens resident Anthony Straughter said in an interview that, while he has yet to find a new home, he is on the waiting list at several public housing facilities.
“I’m like number 7 on one, number 9 on one, number 11 on one. So I just take it day by day,” said Straughter, who court records suggest does not have a lease to reside at Valmar Gardens.
André Mobley, who has lived at Valmar Gardens for 10 years and serves as its tenant council president, led Straughter and a few other residents in a protest outside the Penn Hills Municipal Building Friday. The group noted they have maintained the property and even covered the cost of utilities for months, while Ward resolved a separate dispute over who owned the property.
“We’ve been in the middle of a property war, but nobody wants to compensate the soldiers who kept the kids from spray-painting the buildings,” Mobley said. “Nobody wants to compensate the people who kept the grass cut, kept the rodents from going into the businesses next door.”
Mobley noted he and other occupants did not need to pay rent after they started to pay for utilities and maintain the complex. And he said that although he has found a new home nearby, he had hoped to have extra time to repair it before moving in.
‘Not safe for anyone to occupy’
Located next to a small strip mall just inside Penn Hills’ boundary with Wilkinsburg, Valmar Gardens was condemned about two years ago, according to a legal complaint filed by a handful of tenants in late 2018. The complaint noted that many residents of the four-building complex had very low incomes, and were elderly or disabled. Some had lived at the complex for more than 10 years, according to the document.
In September 2018, water, electricity, and garbage removal services at the property ceased, and squatters began to move onto the premises illegally, the complaint said. Thieves had also started to strip one of the buildings of its copper plumbing, according to the filing. Dozens of residents have since left the property, while those who remain have vacated three of its four structures because they are unlivable.
“Those buildings are not safe for anyone to occupy,” Penn Hills municipal manager Scott Andrejchak said. He noted that conditions began to deteriorate after Prasad Margabandhu, who has a history of legal troubles, bought Valmar Gardens in early 2018. “I think to some degree, everyone’s a victim," Andrejchak said.
Andrejchak said that when Penn Hills condemned Valmar Gardens, municipal staff tried to help tenants find new housing by directing them to programs within the Allegheny County Department of Human Services. The township also enlisted Operation Safety Net to provide additional outreach.
But the tenants’ attorneys asked Ward, the judge, to appoint a receiver to maintain the property so that they could stay. Ward granted that request in early 2019. But in early March of this year, just days before COVID-19 shut down much of the economy, she ordered the residents to leave by May 15.
Ward had determined that mortgage lender Bayview Loan Servicing LLC was the rightful owner of Valmar Gardens. She said the company could take possession of the property but would first need to pay the tenants $2,500 in relocation assistance.
While court records suggest at least two tenants have moved out, Mobley said before Wednesday’s hearing that he was delayed by the governor’s stay-at-home order, which lasted from late March until early June.
“We took that [$2,500] to maintain the property because we’re on shutdown,” the tenant said. “So we had to cut the grass, take the garbage out with that money they gave us.”
But two weeks after Allegheny County entered the "green" phase of reopening, a new owner, local investment company BDCT LLC, tried to have the occupants removed. Ward intervened, however, and ruled that the residents could not be evicted without first having an opportunity to tell her why they believed they had a right to stay.
‘Real limitations of tenants’ rights’
Although the residents cited COVID-19 as an extenuating circumstance in their letters, Ward said, “It would be irresponsible … to allow these people to remain there" given conditions at the property.
Neighborhood Legal Services attorney Eileen Yacknin represented four of the renters, at least two of whom have moved out. Yacknin acknowledged that the property owner had the right to evict the tenants, who lived at Valmar Gardens on month-to-month leases.
“It’s a situation that exposes ... the problems with our society right now – how does our society ensure that everyone obtains affordable housing?” Yacknin said in an interview.
Yacknin added that, while she believes Ward is “sympathetic to … people who are having a difficult time finding housing now,” the court decision was “a matter of balancing those rights with the owners’ rights.”
A lawyer for the new owner, BDCT LLC, said his client wants to rehabilitate Valmar Gardens. “All we want is a safe environment,” attorney Matt Feinman said. “We want a safe space in the community, and right now these buildings are not safe.”
Feinman would not disclose specific plans for Valmar Gardens and would only describe BDCT LLC as an investment company “owned by a couple of local people.” County real estate records show the firm bought Valmar Gardens for $210,000 in June.
Mobley, the Valmar Gardens Tenant Council President, said the company should commit in writing to offering him and other soon-to-be evicted residents jobs improving the property. On Wednesday, he said, “The only thing that we’re asking for … is some due respect for the residents that put in their heart and soul in preserving the property.”
Feinman declined to make any promises, but he said his client is “absolutely not only willing to take [the residents’ job] applications, but to give a little bit of preference to [them] … provided obviously that it’s somebody with experience, somebody who can do the job.”
“It doesn’t mean that they’re going to be able to stay [at Valmar Gardens] and live there, because they do have to vacate the property to be able to bring it up to code and to make it safe,” Feinman said. But he added that his client has worked with the residents’ attorneys and Operation Safety Net to ensure the residents get the support they need to find new housing.