Residents facing eviction from Penn Plaza and their supporters rallied on the steps of the City-County building Tuesday afternoon, calling on the city to step up efforts to increase access to affordable housing.
According to Mayor Bill Peduto’s chief of staff Kevin Acklin, about 25 residents remain in the apartment complex and must vacate by March 31 to make way for redevelopment of the site.
“I have a lot of applications in, but we’re turned down everywhere,” said Mabel Duffy, 78, who has a Section 8 voucher and has lived at Penn Plaza for nine years. She said she doesn’t know where she is going to move at the end of next month.
Acklin said the city sent a letter to the lawyer for the owners of Penn Plaza, LG Realty Advisors, last Thursday, informing the company it had received complaints from residents related to construction on the site.
In the letter, the city states that residents have complained of faulty heating units, asbestos tiles being torn up without proper precautions and lax security.
Duffy said there is also dust of some sort making its way into her apartment and that she fears for her health.
Duffy’s neighbor, Myrtle Stern, 76, is also concerned about health risks related to construction, and said there is a strange smell on the premises.
The city’s letter to attorney Jonathan Kamin asked for “written assurance that your client will cure these defects to living conditions” and that it will continue to honor the financial commitments agreed upon in a previous Memorandum of Understanding.
LG Realty had previously agreed to provide financial assistance to evicted residents. Acklin said so far, the company has honored that commitment for the more than 350 residents who have already moved out.
Acklin said if the company does not respond by the end of business Tuesday, the city will seek an injunction to enforce commitments made under the MOU, which he said also includes a pledge from the company not to begin demolition work until all residents have been relocated.
“There were some allegations that there was some early demolition work being done that we felt that was not permitted,” he said. “While people are living in the building, they should not be doing any demolition because of asbestos, just basic human health issues.”
The city is already in court with LG Realty. The company is suing the city over the planning commission’s unanimous decision in January to reject LG Realty’s development plans. The company claims the commission did not issue its decision in a timely manner, as required by city code.
Additionally, the city announced last week it would fine the company $42,000 for the unauthorized removal of 10 public trees.
“What we wanted here was a community-driven development,” Acklin said. “We wanted them to go back out to the neighborhood and talk about issues like affordable housing and new investments in the park there, and ultimately those discussions came up short.”
Despite efforts to preserve affordable housing in East Liberty, advocates said the city needs to do more, even in the wake of Peduto’s executive orders last week.
“Our mayor and city council should act to address the systemic causes of displacement through legislation and policies long shown to have substantive, practical effect,” said Randall Taylor, a former Penn Plaza resident who led the rally.
Taylor and others are calling on the city to require that owners of luxury apartment buildings in East Liberty and Shadyside, which received tax or cash subsidies, provide vacant units for rent at affordable rates to Penn Plaza residents. They are also calling on the city to stop the practice of providing public subsidies to developers that do not include affordable housing in their development plans and whose projects displace existing residents.
In the short term, Acklin said the city is committed to making sure Mabel Duffy, Myrtle Stern and the other remaining Penn Plaza residents find affordable housing nearby.
Stern said she relies on public transit to get around and wants to stay near her doctor and family in East Liberty.
“Why are we making our seniors have to fight like this?” Taylor asked the crowd. “They should be sitting back enjoying grandkids, instead they’re down here in these furious battles to save this city.”
LG Realty’s attorney, Kamin, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The Allegheny County Health Department also did not immediately respond to questions about whether they have visited the Penn Plaza site to substantiate residents’ claims of health hazards.