Todd Griffin, a 45-year-old single dad, has lived in Homewood his entire life. But he fears his time in the neighborhood may be coming to an end.
He and his daughter, 4-year-old Makeela, live in a two-bedroom apartment on the same street where he used to ride his big wheel as a kid and mow lawns to earn cash. These days, he takes on landscaping work as he can find it, occasionally drives a school bus or tints windows at an auto body shop. He spends his time tending to his mom, who lives in a nearby nursing home, and of course Makeela, who just had surgery. For support, Griffin depends upon his church, which is around the corner.
Now, through no fault of his own, Griffin and Makeela could be forced to move away – away from his church and his mother and away from the neighborhood where he grew up.
In early October, Griffin received a letter informing him that because the owner of his apartment building had failed to adequately maintain units like his, subsidies being paid under the Section 8 program of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development [HUD] would end. These particular subsidies have made rent affordable for Griffin and an estimated 300 to 400 other tenants.
Griffin’s apartment on Hamilton Avenue is one of the 141 Bethesda-Homewood units owned by Homewood Residential, LP, based in New York, New York. The company’s failure to keep units in a “decent, safe, and sanitary condition” has left tenants uncertain about their future.
After weeks of scrambling to assist the tenants, city officials and local community groups may have hashed out a plan to salvage the units that can be rehabilitated and to keep HUD’s funding eligible at the properties — or at least within the city of Pittsburgh. So it’s possible, though not certain, that tenants like Makeela and her dad could stay in their homes.
HUD inspections of the properties conducted in February and July found significant health and safety deficiencies including mold and mildew, missing or inoperable smoke detectors, exposed wires and windows that failed to lock. Less urgent violations included peeling paint and inoperable light fixtures. In the last two inspections, HUD gave the properties inspection scores of 9 and 15 on a scale of 100.
“HUD said they’d never seen scores this low,” said Tom Cummings, director of housing at the Urban Redevelopment Authority [URA], at a Dec. 14 board meeting.
Because HUD’s contract was with Homewood Residential, HUD had not communicated directly with tenants or local municipalities regarding inspection scores. Managed locally by Aishel Real Estate of Wilkinsburg, the portfolio is a mix of townhouses, single-family homes and multifamily apartments scattered across Homewood, as well as Garfield and Larimer.
Chaim Davidson, owner of Aishel Real Estate, which has managed the properties since 2012, said his company was unable to make necessary repairs within the timeframe required by HUD.
In a Dec. 19 letter to HUD, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto stated that a coalition of community organizations and nonprofits are working to acquire the properties “before year’s end,” and it’s been determined that a maximum of 82 units can be repaired enough to pass inspection and allow residents to remain. Some units may be demolished. The letter promised HUD a full working plan by Jan. 12, 2018, with the hope of retaining a portion of HUD’s subsidy at the Bethesda-Homewood properties. Peduto’s letter also indicates the URA is identifying other sites where remaining funding could be transferred, giving preference to properties in or around the Homewood, Larimer and Garfield neighborhoods.
Loss of the Bethesda-Homewood subsidy would be a blow to Pittsburgh’s already strained stock of affordable housing. The city’s Affordable Housing Task Force reported in May 2016 that Pittsburgh needs more than 17,000 units of affordable rental housing. While the creation of new affordable housing is necessary, “the preservation of our current housing stock is a core component to comprehensive affordable housing policy,” according to the task force report.
The apartment where Griffin and his daughter have lived for two and a half years may be one worth preserving. Inspectors didn’t flag it for any emergency health or safety concerns. Additionally, Griffin feels safe there and doesn’t want to go; he isn’t confident he could find another suitable place in Homewood.
Tears in Griffin’s carpet are the greatest signs of wear here, though he points out a baseball-sized patch job he did on the wall in his daughter’s bedroom and he’s begun painting other walls. He’s also replaced old tile in his kitchen floor and purchased a refrigerator.
“I’m respecting where I live at,” Griffin said.
“Now I gotta relocate. I don't know where they’re going to put me. ... You put me on the South Side or the North Side where I can’t live and can’t communicate with people to watch my child, it’s hard,” he said.
“I want to be here for a lifetime to watch my daughter grow up.”
An emergency years in the making
The Bethesda-Homewood properties had been in decline for years. The properties scored a 52 in a February 2013 inspection. A year later, the score sunk to 35. Despite these significant drops, and even though HUD guidelines say a score of 79 or below should trigger annual inspections, nearly three years went by before the most recent inspections.
Niki Edwards, public affairs officer for HUD’s mid-Atlantic region, declined to comment. Edwards wrote in an email that the matter is under review in HUD’s Office of General Counsel.
Unlike Todd Griffin, Sandra* is among the Bethesda-Homewood residents who are experiencing serious problems in their homes. [*PublicSource has changed the name of this tenant for privacy reasons.] The pipes are backed up, causing sewage to flood the basement in Sandra’s Kelly Street apartment in Homewood. Her daughter’s bedroom had “electrical problems,” she said, but maintenance “just came in and capped it off.”
Given the living conditions, Sandra is ready to leave her home of 10 years. The Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh [HACP] has given her a housing voucher, and she believes she’s found an apartment in Observatory Hill on the North Side willing to take it. HACP is letting Bethesda-Homewood residents skip the housing voucher waitlist, which was roughly 3,000 deep in late September and is closed to new applicants. These vouchers enable tenants to rent at any location, as long as a landlord is willing and the unit passes inspection.
Residents are also receiving relocation assistance from Leumas Residential, an agency contracted by HUD to provide tenants with a list of potential properties, funds to cover transportation costs and $750 toward a moving truck.
‘If we’re the bank’
“We need HUD to take its foot off the gas pedal,” said attorney Kevin Quisenberry of the Community Justice Project at a recent community meeting. He and several resident leaders suggested in a letter to the mayor that as long as emergency concerns were addressed, most Bethesda-Homewood properties could still “be repaired and/or rehabilitated and preserved as a long-term, truly affording housing resource.” This could happen, they said, once the properties were under new ownership.
East Liberty Development, Inc. [ELDI] has established a purchase agreement with the current property owner. All 141 units would cost nearly $5.9 million. Kendall Pelling, director of land recycling for ELDI, estimated that the current owner would net between $300,000 to $400,000 on the deal.
The URA board recently agreed to support the purchase with a $500,000 loan, but not without some concerns.
Kevin Acklin, chair of the URA board and outgoing chief of staff for the mayor, expressed frustration that HUD didn’t notify the city of the failed inspections.
He added: “I want to make sure that if we’re the bank, it’s financing this slumlord’s exit from the city so that he can’t keep doing what he’s doing. I want to make sure we’re doing everything we can to hold [Homewood Residential] accountable because I want that to be the example. You don’t come to our city and do business that way.”
Rev. Samuel Ware, executive director of Building United of Southwestern Pennsylvania and chair of the Homewood Community Development Collaborative, expressed concerns about ELDI’s role. “If there is a discussion about how to deal with a crisis in Homewood, how to provide resources to deal with a problem in Homewood, representation from Homewood should be part of that discussion.”
Pelling emphasized that ELDI wants to preserve occupancy in every case possible and is supportive of future involvement from the Homewood Community Development Collaborative. Pelling also said ELDI has no interest in being the long-term owners of the properties.
The URA board added an amendment to its loan approval calling for an agreement between ELDI and the collaborative, a coalition of eight Homewood-based organizations.
The Heinz Endowments is contributing a $900,000 grant toward ELDI’s purchase, and another $2.8 million is needed from other foundations. Rob Stephany, director of community and economic development for The Heinz Endowments, said ELDI has a good track record. He pointed to the East Liberty Gardens development where ELDI provided intensive case management to low-income households with families undergoing a similar transition around 2005.
“We think good community development starts when you stabilize families who live there,” Stephany said. “Then you can actually start to build the neighborhood around them.”
An uncertain future
Even with the city’s recent proposal to HUD, it remains unclear where Griffin and hundreds of other Bethesda-Homewood tenants will call home in the coming days.
As of Dec. 19, 69 Bethesda-Homewood households had received a housing voucher, according to David Weber, HACP’s chief of operations. Tenants may be able to use vouchers in their current units, but only if the property comes under new ownership and their unit passes inspection. A voucher holder has 120 days to use it, though they may request an extension if necessary.
Todd Griffin said he hasn’t heard that there’s a chance for some Bethesda-Homewood residents to stay put. He’s been overwhelmed, trying to find a new place during the winter. Even just finding a way to get around to look at properties has been challenging.
“This is Christmas,” Griffin says, shaking his head. “It doesn’t even feel like the holidays anymore.”
This story was fact-checked by Oliver Morrison.
Mark Kramer is a freelance writer and creative writing teacher based in Pittsburgh. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Juliette Rihl is freelance writer and Coro Pittsburgh fellow. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.