Soaring rents, waning options: For tenants on tight budgets, the North Hills isn’t a friendly place

In Allegheny County’s northern suburbs, even paying the rent doesn’t always stop eviction, and affordable options are dwindling.

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The Avalon Apartment Homes in Avalon, where one tenant's rent nearly doubled to $1,783 last year. (Photo by Quinn Glabicki/PublicSource)

The Avalon Apartment Homes in Avalon, where one tenant's rent nearly doubled to $1,783 last year. (Photo by Quinn Glabicki/PublicSource)

Last year, Anna Wood’s rent jumped from $920 a month to $1,783, and the retired widow could not afford it. In November, The Avalon Apartment Homes filed to evict her.

By the time the eviction complaint arrived, Wood had already resolved to leave and packed many of her things. The only question: Where can a widow, on a fixed income and dependent on public transit, afford to live?

Her grandson helped her look online, while she scoured the newspaper, solicited help from a nearby church and ran “looking to rent” classifieds in the Pittsburgh Senior News.

“I’ve been looking everywhere,” she said in a May interview, as she awaited a June 9 hearing in the eviction case. “I’m living out of cardboard boxes. I’m ready to go.”

While the affordable housing shortage isn’t confined to the North Hills, renter-heavy suburbs like Avalon and neighboring Bellevue seem to face three concurrent pressures, according to tenants, public officials and real estate professionals.

  • Multifamily rental houses are being converted to single-family use.
  • Eviction curbs driven by a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention order are reducing the turnover in the market.
  • The area’s overall supply of subsidized units is small and stagnant, thanks in part to community resistance to low-income housing.

Some officials are trying to address the problem. Six perspectives on the North Hills rental market suggest that preserving or increasing affordable housing there won’t be easy.

The property manager

Denis Tague has on his desk a list of people who want to rent housing in the North Hills. A property manager for Berkshire Hathaway, focused on the northern suburbs, he believes that people deserve housing at a fair price.

That price, though, is rising. Landlords, he said, are “getting $2,700 a month for properties that would rent for $1,700 or $1,800 ten years ago.”

Want something for under $1,000 a month? On a late May day, Tague searched the West Penn Multi-List – a site for real estate professionals – for available rentals in the North Hills at or below that price.

He found just six.

Chances are, those six properties wouldn’t be on the list for long. He recently posted a rental unit, which was snapped up within 12 hours.

Berkshire Hathaway property manager Denis Tague photographed at the Berkshire Hathaway office in McCandless on June 11, 2021. (Photo by Quinn Glabicki/PublicSource)

Berkshire Hathaway property manager Denis Tague tries to find apartments for people of modest means, but there are few to come by in the North Hills, where his McCandless office is located. (Photo by Quinn Glabicki/PublicSource)

If your circumstances mandate government help with the rent, things are truly dire, Tague said. He has heard from tenants with Housing Choice Vouchers [Section 8], which allow them to pay 30% of their incomes for rent, with the federal government covering the balance of what it deems to be fair market rents. He has little to offer them.

“I feel very bad for people who are looking for [landlords who take] Section 8,” said Tague. “I can hear the desperation in their voices.”

The tenant

Mary Ellen Barber beat an eviction case in March (chronicled in this PublicSource story) and since then her voucher and her disability check have allowed her to stay current on the rent for her Avalon apartment.

In May, though, property manager Nexus Real Estate filed another eviction case, noting that even though she owes nothing, her lease has expired, and it has other plans for her apartment.

“Ms. Barber being a Section 8 voucher tenant, my client wants to renovate this unit, as it has every other unit in this structure,” attorney Ken Scholtz told District Judge Tara Smith at a May 27 hearing. He added that the purpose of the renovation is “in order to charge higher rent. That’s exactly what my client plans to do.”

In Pennsylvania, landlords are allowed to evict because of overdue rent, the expiration of the lease period or violation of lease terms. So far this year, 12 of the 43 eviction eviction cases filed with Smith’s court – which hears cases in Avalon, Bellevue and several other northern suburbs – include no claim of overdue rent.

Barber told PublicSource she hopes to stay reasonably close to her North Hills friends and doctors, can’t handle too many stairs and wants to be able to keep her cat, Schmitty.

Mary Ellen Barber said she has been searching for a suitable apartment in the North Hills, for which the landlord would accept a Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher as partial payment, but hasn't been able to find one. (Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource)

Mary Ellen Barber said she has been searching for a suitable apartment in the North Hills where the landlord would accept a Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher as partial payment. She hasn't been able to find one. (Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource)

At the hearing, she told Smith that the number of potential new places about which she’s inquired “has to be at least 50 or more. …No one would take my Section 8.” She said she has even gotten help directly from Kim Longwell, director of the Allegheny County Housing Authority’s voucher program, “and I still haven’t been able to find another apartment.”

Barber’s attorney, Julia Zebley of Neighborhood Legal Services, told Smith it would be even harder to find another apartment if there was an eviction judgment on the tenant’s record. The judge postponed any decision, and another hearing is scheduled for July.

On June 8, Barber wrote in an email to PublicSource that her search has continued, and she had recently visited a place in Bellevue.

“The rent is way more than what my voucher goes up to,” she wrote. “And it has 20 steps.”

The voucher manager

“We’ve never had a lot of units in the North Hills,” said Longwell, who oversees the Housing Choice Voucher Program for all of the county except for Pittsburgh and McKeesport, which have their own housing authorities.

Throughout the entire North Hills, there are just 488 tenants using Section 8 vouchers to pay for housing. That’s 8.3% of the county authority’s nearly 5,900 housing vouchers.

More than 60% of the Housing Choice Vouchers in use in the North Hills are concentrated in just four of the area’s 25 ZIP codes.

Why is much of the North Hills virtually voucher free?

“I think there’s the reputation of the program, ‘not in my backyard,’” Longwell speculated.

Tague said he has heard landlords complain about the time it takes to get housing authority approval for a unit, which is required before they can start billing the voucher program. “It takes two months, and that’s money, because otherwise you can have someone in there in a week or two,” he said.

Longwell said the county authority has tried to make the program more attractive to landlords. The authority now covers the balance of rents even if they are 10% beyond the federal government’s calculations for fair market rents for the unit’s ZIP code, she said.

In April, the county authority, along with the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh, won a federal grant to help low-income families with children to move out of high-poverty areas. As part of that, the authorities will be actively recruiting landlords in areas of high economic opportunity who are willing to take vouchers, Longwell said.

She added that the county authority recently put out a request for proposals from landlords who might want subsidies to build or rehab units for affordable rental housing in areas that don’t have high poverty rates, which would include most of the North Hills. Responses are due in August.

The borough council president

These days, when a property in Bellevue goes on the market, the result, according to borough council President Val Pennington, can be described in two words: “Bidding war.”

“The real estate was so economical, people really started snapping it up, and it got popular with the flippers,” he said of the borough, where an estimated 63% of households rented in 2019, according to Census Bureau surveys.

Those flippers have been snapping up large houses that had been carved into multiple apartments, restoring them to single-family homes and unloading them to new owner-occupants within days of putting them on the market, said Pennington.

Val Pennington, president of Bellevue Borough Council, bought a house that had previously consisted of multiple rental units. That's an increasingly common scenario in Bellevue. (Photo by Quinn Glabicki/PublicSource)

Val Pennington, president of Bellevue Borough Council, bought a house that had previously consisted of multiple rental units. That's an increasingly common scenario in Bellevue. (Photo by Quinn Glabicki/PublicSource)

The result is a shrinking rental market that is also affected by CDC rules generally barring the eviction of people who can’t pay rent because of the pandemic, he said. “Nobody’s going anywhere, which means nothing opens up.”

So far, relatively few residents have been pushed out by the changes, Pennington said. “But with the skyrocketing property values, it is kind of a concern,” he added. “A lot of the longtime residents may be getting priced out of their neighborhood.”

The township commissioner

At Chris Eyster’s second meeting as a Ross commissioner, on Feb. 16, he ended up on the losing side of a vote on affordable housing.

Nonprofit ACTION-Housing wanted to develop a building with 40 affordable apartments – half for seniors, half for people with disabilities – on a Babcock Boulevard parcel owned by the Christ Episcopal Church. It needed commissioner approval to change the zoning to allow for multifamily housing.

Two residents spoke in opposition, and council members weighed the potential effect on traffic. Council rejected the zoning change, 8-1, with Eyster the lone yes vote.

Attracting more residents would be good for Ross’s large commercial sector, he said. “And affordable housing certainly is a concern.”

Chris Eyster, a Ross commissioner, wants more affordable housing in the township, but was recently outvoted on a proposal that would have created 40 apartments for seniors and the disabled. (Photo by Quinn Glabicki/PublicSource)

Chris Eyster, a Ross commissioner, wants more affordable housing in the township, but was recently outvoted on a proposal that would have created 40 apartments for seniors and disabled residents. (Photo by Quinn Glabicki/PublicSource)

Neither commission President Dan DeMarco nor Commissioner Fran Salachup, whose district includes the proposed site, returned calls or emails for comment. In June, ACTION Executive Director Larry Swanson characterized the future of the project as “uncertain” and declined to talk about negotiations he termed “sensitive.”

Eyster said that while Ross doesn’t have many undeveloped areas in which one could build affordable housing, the struggles of the township’s strip malls could create new opportunities. “I anticipate that at some time there will be a conversion from the big-box stores and the malls to a more mixed-use situation, where apartments and condominium buildings will be developed.”

The judge

On June 8, the eve of her eviction hearing, Anna Wood said her search for an affordable apartment remained fruitless. “I can’t find anything,” she said. “I’ve been looking and looking.”

On the plus side, Allegheny County’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program had accepted her application for rent relief, she said. The program paid her overdue balance and was continuing to pay the Avalon Apartment Homes the new rent, $1,783. “I don’t know how long they’ll keep paying my rent,” she said. The program could expire at the end of September.

Despite her zero balance, the eviction case against her was still scheduled to proceed.

The next day, she went to Smith’s courtroom, ready to argue that she should be allowed to stay put while she tried to find a new place. Court staff told her that they’d just gotten word from the landlord that the case was being withdrawn.

The Avalon Apartment Homes, in Avalon. Chris Eyster, a Ross commissioner, wants more affordable housing in the township, but was recently outvoted on a proposal that would have created 40 apartments for seniors and the disabled. (Photo by Quinn Glabicki/PublicSource)

The Avalon Apartment Homes, in Avalon. (Photo by Quinn Glabicki/PublicSource)

The Avalon Apartment Homes management did not return calls for comment.

Wood’s was one of nine eviction cases on Smith’s docket that morning. She postponed rulings on six of the others, so that the tenants could pursue federally backed rent relief.

One landlord asked if he could proceed to get an order booting a tenant who had applied for rent relief but had not yet submitted all of the required documents. The judge said no. “The problem with housing is there’s no apartments really available,” she told the landlord. “It’s a mess.”

In two cases in which tenants were not pursuing rent relief, Smith ruled in favor of the landlords, though she told them that they could not physically eject the tenants until pandemic-driven eviction curbs expire. The CDC’s order is set to sunset at the end of June, unless extended.

After the hearings, Smith talked with PublicSource about the cases looming on her docket, in which landlords are asserting their legal rights and tenants are pleading that they have few options.

“Everywhere rent is through the roof,” she said. Tenants who pay the rent are still subject to eviction as leases expire and landlords explore other options. “The end-of-lease-term cases — there’s just nowhere to go.”

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

Develop PGH has been made possible with funding from The Heinz Endowments.

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