As the temperature plunged on Friday, Jan. 21, Sarina Bowers prepared to spend the night on an air mattress in a half-remodeled Coraopolis house with her dog, Odin. She was calm. But 12 hours before, she’d gone into “instant panic,” she said, while checking her phone.

That morning, she woke up in the Conneaut, Ohio, rental house in which she usually resides. She checked an app connected to the camera in the Coraopolis house, which she owns. The camera had captured a man climbing through an unlocked window and changing the locks.

“I jumped out of bed, running around, looking at my phone, trying to figure out who it was,” she recounted. She packed the car and headed from Conneaut to Coraopolis.

As evening fell, she wasn’t sure who had changed the locks. She figured it stemmed from a conservatorship case filed on the Coraopolis house in 2016.

Conservatorship is a legal mechanism created by a 2008 state law under which a would-be steward can take control of a vacant and blighted property and repair it so it no longer harms the community.

Under court supervision, the conservator can spend money and then place a lien on the property. The lien can later be used to collect the money or take ownership. Nonprofit organizations and for-profit real estate players have used the court-regulated tool to improve and, in some cases, take deed to problem properties.

In Bowers’ case, a former friend and ally arranged a conservatorship over her house. And in a strange twist, the resulting lien passed from an obscure nonprofit to a well-known one: East Liberty Development Inc. [ELDI], known for decades of work transforming Pittsburgh’s East End. 

An air mattress has served as both bed and workspace for Sarina Bowers since January 21, when an entry captured by a security camera spurred a hurried trip from Conneaut, Ohio, to Coraopolis. (Photo by Kaycee Orwig/PublicSource)

For months, Bowers has been involved in a tug-of-war with ELDI over the property. Its contested status has rendered her unable to buy a home in Ohio, and worried about the mounting debts attached to the Coraopolis property.

“I’m 34, I don’t have kids, I have a decent job and I might have to file for bankruptcy,” said Bowers, a computer-assisted designer.

The changing of the locks solidified her desire to assert control of the house.

“I feel like this is the Wild West,” she said, after turning up the heat against the worsening cold. “I’m going to mark my territory. ‘You can’t come in here because I am here.’”

A friend and a guinea pig

Bowers moved to Wilkinsburg in 2014 and soon became acquainted with neighbor Aaron Chaney. He helped to fix things around the condo she rented. She sometimes walked his dog.

As her lease renewal approached, they got to talking. “I said, ‘I want to buy property because renting is more expensive than buying property.’” she recounted. “He said, ‘Oh, really? That’s what I do. I buy and sell property.’ I said, ‘Oh, really? How convenient! How great for me!’”

Odin stands near the door to the porch of the Coraopolis house owned by Sarina Bowers, who has been keeping her food outside because she does not have a refrigerator. (Photo by Kaycee Orwig/PublicSource)

Chaney operates several businesses and has testified in court that he has purchased and sold around 1,000 houses in the Pittsburgh area, owns stakes in more than 200 rental units and sells at least 50 houses per year.

Bowers said Chaney began to suggest properties, and she took a shine to one in Coraopolis. It had a sun porch in front, a back porch with a view of the hills and plenty of space.

Chaney told PublicSource that the owner “just wanted it out of their name.” The problem: It was the subject of three mortgages totaling $110,000 and at least $15,000 in back taxes. 

An arrangement emerged, which Bowers said she only vaguely understood.

First, the prior owner signed the deed over to Bowers.

Second, Bowers signed a one-page consulting contract with Chaney, paying him $3,000 in fees and, she said, $500 in costs.

Third, Monaca-based lawyer Wayne Cobb, who has since become a leading conservatorship attorney, worked up a plan. In an April 2016 email to Chaney, Cobb suggested that they file a conservatorship on the house and use the resulting legal process to clear debts and make improvements. Then a Chaney-related entity could take ownership of the house and sell it “back to the owner,” Cobb wrote. Another option was to sell it “to one of your businesses,” he added.

Cobb did not respond to requests for comment.

Also in April 2016, a new nonprofit called Blight 2 Light Inc. was incorporated at Chaney’s business address. Its purpose was to remediate abandoned and blighted properties.

Nonprofits have an advantage under the conservatorship law. While residents and businesses are allowed to take control of blighted buildings within 2,000 feet of property they own, nonprofits aren’t subject to the proximity rule.

Blight 2 Light would go on to file 20 conservatorship cases. The first involved Bowers’ house.

“You’re my guinea pig,” Chaney texted to Bowers.

Debts and taxes 

In June 2016, Cobb filed a conservatorship petition on behalf of Blight 2 Light against Bowers, stating incorrectly that the property was in Canonsburg and that it had not been purchased within the preceding six months.

The petition, which is the first step in a conservatorship case, also noted that the owner was living in Maine, where Bowers was temporarily located for her employment. It alleged that the house needed a new roof and gutters, suffered water damage, was a fire risk, sheltered vermin and could conceivably attract prostitutes, drug users and vagrants.

Three months later, Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas Judge Timothy O’Reilly named Blight 2 Light the conservator for the property, giving the nonprofit the right to fix it.

Through 2018, as Bowers split her time between Coraopolis and contract jobs in Maine and California, Chaney dispatched contractors to the property.

“I was just trying to help her out,” said Chaney. “The property qualified as blighted. She’d moved to Maine. We fixed the property up and made it habitable.”

While Bowers initially welcomed the efforts of Chaney’s contractors, she began to question the quality of their work. She also wanted to start paying off the back taxes on the property.

The views from the Coraopolis house were one of its attractions to Sarina Bowers, who lived in it on-and-off from 2016 through early 2020. (Photo by Kaycee Orwig/PublicSource)

“I was making very good money at the time,” Bowers recounted. “And I said, ‘These schools clearly need the money.’”

“No no no,” Chaney texted her. “Trust me.”

Chaney told PublicSource that he hoped that the court would strike the back taxes. “The process wasn’t seen through,” he added.

In court, Cobb asked that the old mortgages be stricken, arguing that otherwise the property could not be sold. The judge granted the request. But the back taxes remained. 

In 2018, Bowers hired a lawyer and asked that the conservatorship end. Blight 2 Light, through Cobb, complied by asking the court to terminate the arrangement, but also to attach a lien for $24,360 to the property. That would allow the nonprofit to collect upon any sale of the property. The judge granted the request to terminate the conservatorship, leaving Bowers in ownership of a house still in debt to the taxing bodies and saddled with the lien.

Bowers, meanwhile, had gone to school for massage therapy in hopes of having a “Zen job on the side,” and had big plans for the house.

Big plans for the Coraopolis house gave way to the realities of back taxes and a conservator’s lien for Sarina Bowers, joined by Odin. (Photo by Kaycee Orwig/PublicSource)

“I wanted to fix up the basement and do massage out of the basement,” she said. She put up shelves, ripped out carpet and cleared weeds and bushes from the front and back yards.

“I had mint growing out there. There was a rose bush that came with the house. I kept the rose bush,” she said. “And this porch was, oh, it was amazing,” she added, looking out the front window into the sun room. “You look up and see all the trees up there. So it was really nice.”

‘You can’t sell this house!’

In early 2020, Bowers found work back in Conneaut. After commuting from Pittsburgh for some time, she found an apartment in her Ohio hometown that would accept Odin. 

Late that year, Chaney decided to dissolve Blight 2 Light. “We just didn’t have time to really focus on operating a nonprofit,” he said. His for-profit companies continue to use conservatorship to take control and ownership of blighted properties.

To dissolve Blight 2 Light, he had to distribute its assets, totaling roughly $200,000, to like-minded nonprofits. He passed most of those assets — including the lien on Bowers’ house — to ELDI.

To all appearances, ELDI was getting a lien on an abandoned house for which the old mortgages had been wiped out, said Ted Melnyk, ELDI’s director of operations. “It was kind of a no-brainer.”

What about the owner of record? At that point, said Melnyk, “In our mind, she’s long gone. She had just left the house and abandoned the house.”

ELDI arranged to have the grass cut, the snow cleared and the property insured, he said. “We’ve been operating under the assumption that we are kind of the de facto conservator.”

In March 2021, though, Melnyk saw that the property in which ELDI now had an interest was scheduled to be auctioned off for back taxes. If that happened, ELDI would not be able to collect the $24,360 lien. To forestall the sale, ELDI paid $19,647 in back taxes owed to Coraopolis.

Meanwhile, Bowers started working with real estate agents. Last fall, she had a buyer lined up for the Coraopolis house and was preparing to close on a house in Conneaut.

Melnyk said he saw online that someone was planning to sell the Coraopolis house. “I said, ‘Wait a sec. We’re in control of this house. You can’t sell this house!’” he recounted.

From pleasant to lockout

In late October, Melnyk and Bowers connected by phone. “We were having very pleasant conversations,” Melnyk said.

Bowers said she wanted the property out of her name and hoped to recoup the money — which she estimated at $30,000 — that she paid in back taxes, repair costs and lawyer fees. 

They did not reach an agreement. Melnyk said Cobb offered to handle the matter.

So in November, Cobb — now representing ELDI — filed two court motions related to the Coraopolis house. The first was a lis pendens, which is a notice that a property may be subject to a lawsuit. The second was a court motion seeking to boost ELDI’s lien to include the $19,647 it paid in back taxes. As yet, there has been no ruling on that petition.

Cobb also wrote a letter to Bowers telling her that ELDI  “will not purchase the subject property from you nor release the conservator’s lien.” He added: “It is not the intent or desire of ELDI to take an unnecessary loss on this asset.”

He also told Bowers to “cease and desist” any contact with the ELDI and warned her not to disparage Blight 2 Light. He wrote that ELDI intended to sell the property, and she might stand to get some of the proceeds. She could also sell it, he added, though ELDI “will expect to be made whole and pursue all available legal remedies to prevent any unnecessary financial loss.”

Bowers told PublicSource that ELDI’s filings made it impossible for her to sell the Coraopolis house and unable to line up financing to buy a house in Conneaut.

One of the three bedrooms of the Coraopolis house owned by Sarina Bowers but subject to liens held by East Liberty Development Inc. (Photo by Kaycee Orwig/PublicSource)

Melnyk, too, received what he called a “shock”: A title search showed nearly $33,000 in back taxes due to the Cornell School District. ELDI decided to change the locks and list the house for sale. 

He said that even though the court record includes a judge’s order terminating the conservatorship, the case was never finally discontinued. “We have permission to take possession and control of the building,” he said. “That’s the powers and duties of the conservator. This sounds funny or weird, but she’s not allowed in the property.”

Melnyk said ELDI is still working with Bowers, through attorneys, to find a solution, and it is willing to compromise. “At this point, we’d just like to have our costs covered, allow Ms. Bowers to get on with her life and have this house back on the tax rolls in Coraopolis,” he said.

By midweek, Bowers was still camping out in the house she owns.

“I don’t know if you’ve slept on an air mattress in the winter,” she said. “It’s very cold. … It’s been difficult to cook. And it’s sad. It’s just sad. I feel like I’m in a weird little prison here, holding down the fort in case they come back.”

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

This story was fact-checked by Charlie Wolfson.

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Rich is the managing editor of PublicSource. He joined the team in 2020, serving as a reporter focused on housing and economic development and an assistant editor. He reported for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette...