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8/31/20: Allegheny County judge adds flexibility to some evictions

With a state moratorium on most new eviction filings set to expire after today, and Gov. Tom Wolf saying he won’t extend it without legislation, an Allegheny County judge has issued an order meant to give courts more flexible timelines in such cases.

When an eviction is based solely on the tenant’s failure to pay rent, according to the order, district judges can add an additional seven days to the statutory time frames that normally require an initial hearing within seven to 10 days, according to President Judge Kim Berkeley Clark’s order.

If the tenant provides an affidavit or testimony that he or she has applied to a rent relief program like the ones offered by the county or by the city’s Urban Redevelopment Authority, and if the tenant and the landlord agree to work together on the application, the hearing can be postponed for the duration of that process. If the parties don’t agree to pursue the application, the district judge can still postpone the initial hearing, under the order.

Since March 16, courts in Pennsylvania have not accepted new eviction filings based on failure to pay or expiration of a lease. The order does not apply to evictions for lease expiration. Landlords can still file evictions for other kinds of lease violations.

In preparation for a potential resumption of evictions, state and county governments have set up a patchwork of housing aid programs, but there have been reports of modest numbers of applications.

In some cities, evictions have numbered in the hundreds per week. Eviction Lab, a project at Princeton University, is tracking landlord-tenant cases in 17 cities, including Pittsburgh. It reported 307 eviction filings in Phoenix, Ariz., in the third week of August; 380 in Columbus, Ohio; and 618 in Houston. It found just 17 evictions in the Pittsburgh area for that week.

8/26/20: Judge says Valmar residents may be ousted from apartments

The remaining residents of the Valmar Gardens apartments in Penn Hills can be forcibly removed, Judge Christine Ward ruled, signaling a potential September ending to a years-long court battle involving the final holdouts in the four-building complex.

Around seven people live in the one remaining occupied building in Valmar Gardens, once a 64-unit complex which has been the subject of ownership disputes and court actions since 2018. Penn Hills police abandoned a June bid to remove residents.

New owner BDCT, LLC, wants to gut the buildings and redevelop them, and introduced testimony that a July 30 fire in the basement of the occupied building demonstrated that it was no longer safe.

“Right now it is not safe, and is not a safe place for people to be living,” attorney Matthew Feinman, representing the building owner, told Judge Ward, in a hearing conducted via Microsoft Teams. “But the building can’t be fixed until everybody is out.”

He continued: “How long do [the owners] have to wait to get into their own property when it is being occupied by people who don’t have leases, who aren’t paying rent, and who aren’t supposed to be in there in the first place?”

Attorney Kevin Quisenberry, advocating for residents, said that $2,500-per-household relocation payments made in March arrived just as the coronavirus shut down the economy, including the rental sector. Residents’ efforts to move “were stalled when the shutdown occurred.”

Resident Andre Mobley testified that some residents spent the relocation money trying to maintain the Valmar property. He said he recently found a new residence, but has to fix it up before he can fully move in.

Douglas Murry, a case manager with Operation Safety Net, said he has been working with residents to find them new homes. The current moratorium on most evictions, which expires Monday, has made that hard, he said, because landlords have been unable to kick out delinquent tenants and thus there are few places available for the Valmar residents. “I have spoken to landlords that are held up in the courts that are unable to move residents out,” he said.

Murry argued against forcing residents to move into homeless shelters, telling Ward that “these people have already been traumatized enough in their lives, including this situation.”

The judge, though, said she was “concerned that somebody is going to get seriously hurt or killed by a fire or other mishap,” and that shelters would be safer. If shelter “is the only alternative, then so be it.”

Fineman said his client won’t contact the sheriff to enforce the removal order until September.

Police in Penn Hills enter the last occupied building in Valmar Gardens, asking residents to leave, on June 19, 2020. The residents were eventually given more time to prepare to move. (Photo by Rich Lord/PublicSource)

8/25/20: New Downtown homeless facility in the works

The region’s homeless population would be served by a new 92-bed facility in the shadow of the Liberty Bridge, under a plan called Project Cares and outlined by civic leaders.

Around 20 corporate, philanthropic, nonprofit and governmental organizations have teamed up to finance and plan the five-story, 45,000-square-foot facility, which County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said could be open in January 2022. Led by PNC Bank and the PNC Foundation, the effort includes city-provided land, county human services, and pledges of engagement, expertise or money from Highmark, UPMC, ACTION-Housing and others.

“This is not something that the city or the county — or the city and the county — could have done alone,” said Mayor Bill Peduto. “The only reason that we’re even able to announce this today is because of the leadership of the city of Pittsburgh [institutions] that got behind it.”

The shelter would not exclude people struggling with addiction or mental health problems, and would include services and medication for them, according to information provided at the press announcement, conducted online via Zoom. Within its walls, in addition to shelter and food, homeless people would get case management, supportive services and behavioral health services.

A floor plan for the proposed Project Cares homeless facility, presented during an online press briefing conducted on Aug. 25, 2020 (Screenshot)

“This will be a model around the country of things that can be done” to address the national challenge of homelessness in downtowns, said Fitzgerald.

Fundraising for the estimated $21 million project isn’t complete yet, and while the city and county are not pledging money directly at this point, they may seek state or federal aid to supplement multi-million-dollar corporate and foundation commitments, Fitzgerald said.

This winter, homeless people will continue to find shelter at the Smithfield United Church of Christ, according to Allegheny County Department of Human Services staff. That shelter needed, and got, emergency repairs last year. The county is also looking for additional sites, in light of concerns created by the coronavirus pandemic.

— By PublicSource reporter Rich Lord

8/25/20: With eviction moratorium set to end, Harrisburg leaders at odds

Economic evictions can start again in a week, barring further state action, and Gov. Tom Wolf and General Assembly leadership are pointing fingers at each other as they weigh means of preventing displacement during the coronavirus pandemic.

Wolf, a Democrat, said in a press release that the statewide moratorium on evictions for failure to pay, and on foreclosures — which he last extended in July — can’t be extended again under terms of the state Emergency Services Code. His statement did not further outline why he can’t unilaterally extend the moratorium again.

Combined with the inadequacy of the state’s rental assistance fund, capped at $750 a month, the expiration of the moratorium could force some Pennsylvanians from their homes during the pandemic, Wolf said.

“The General Assembly must act to fix these problems immediately to provide meaningful assistance to this vital sector of the economy and prevent the displacement of Pennsylvanians as we continue to fight the COVID-19 virus,” he said, asking specifically for an increase in the monthly rental aid cap.

A spokesman for the House’s Republican majority issued a statement faulting the governor for “passing the buck to the legislature to once again bail him out of his poor prior planning.”

“The governor has spent the last six months literally legislating from Mt. Wolf,” according to the statement. “As the House returns to session next week, this will be one of the many potential items we will discuss as a caucus as we look to safely return Pennsylvanians back to work so they can support their families and hold the Wolf administration accountable for its actions during this pandemic.”

— By PublicSource reporter Rich Lord

8/25/20: Proposed Strip tower doesn’t entice commissioners

A proposed 20-story office tower that would bring a Downtown feel to the Strip District left City Planning Commission members “mildly disappointed” at first blush, with a vote likely next month.

A team led by New York-based JMC Holdings wants to develop an office building at 1501 Penn Ave., extending through the block to Smithfield Street. It would include ground-floor retail and bicycle-focused spaces, seven stories of parking, and a dozen floors of offices, geared largely toward the needs of technology companies. It would replace the Wholey building, formerly the site of a landmark fish market which has moved two blocks away.

“Ultimately the Strip District is a district that is attracting a huge amount, a huge number of tech companies,” architect Brandon Haw told the commission. “The commitment of our client to Pittsburgh, to create good quality, lasting and adaptable office space, has been remarkable in my experience.”

Haw described the proposed building’s role in the transition between neighborhoods. “This site [is] poised between the two worlds of the Strip District and its scale and the district of Downtown, with its much larger, massive scale. And this building is being carefully considered to bridge the gap between those two.”

An artist’s rendering of a proposed office building, at 1501 Penn Ave., in the Strip District, with Downtown in the distance, presented to the City Planning Commission on Aug. 25, 2020.

Several commission members questioned whether the building did a good job of fulfilling that role.

“I wish the building could try harder,” said commission Chair Christine Mondor. She applauded its street-level details, but thought the upper floor design evoked impressions of “an elite tower in the sky” out of synch with “the kinds of folks who are visiting the Strip District.”

She speculated that the design was driven in part by budgetary limits. “And you’re doing the best you can with it, but [the proposed building is] not really about the place, and I wish it was more about the place.”

“We’re probably all mildly disappointed with the things we’re seeing,” said commission member Sabina Deitrick.

The commission is expected to hear public testimony on the proposal, and likely vote, on Sept. 8.

The commission gave its nod to the historic designations of the Spring Hill Elementary School and the Hanauer-Rosenberg Residence in Deutschtown, plus construction of eight new single-family homes at the corner of Grandview Avenue and Merrimac Street, at the top of P.J. McArdle Roadway in Mt. Washington.

— By PublicSource reporter Rich Lord

8/13/20: Investing in COVID recovery

The PNC Foundation announced its commitment of $10 million Thursday to the Urban Redevelopment Authority [URA] to aid with recovery from the COVID-19 recession and economic inequality.

URA Board Chairman Sam Williamson called the investment critically important.

“We’ve got to rebuild our economy, and frankly, we’ve got to rebuild our economy better, stronger and more equitably than we had before this crisis,” Williamson said. “This is the kind of investment we’ll need in order to actually do that work and make that vision a reality.”

The funding will be dedicated to the following initiatives:

  • $6.5 million for COVID-19 recovery loans for disadvantaged communities, minorities and childcare businesses.
  • $2.5 million for Invest PGH, a community development finance institution that is expected to launch next year.
  • $1 million for a minority business incubator.

“We are pleased to make this investment in support of our underserved Pittsburgh neighborhoods and the struggling Pittsburgh small business owners,” said Cathy Niederberger, managing director of community development for PNC Bank. “We’re aware that the demand for these loans outweigh the capital available.”

In a Zoom meeting that stretched two and a half hours, the board of directors also unanimously approved $4 million in investments in affordable housing projects, including several in District 2. Among those are the following projects:

  • $351,000 loan to overhaul and modernize an elevator at Sweetbriar Place, an eight-story, 55-unit apartment building in the Mount Washington neighborhood for low-income seniors.
  • $200,000 for a Housing Recovery Program to provide deferred second mortgages to rehab five affordable housing units in the Chartiers City, Crafton Heights and Sheraden neighborhoods, acquired through bank foreclosures.
  • $75,000 grant for the Jasmine Nyree Campus project to adapt a 180,000 square-foot vacant lot into a facility for residents with special needs in Sheraden that is expected to include a Learning Center with a basketball court, computer lab and library and an adult daycare to open in 2021. Later phases include a community center and apartment building for low-income seniors and disabled veterans.

Christy Porter, executive director for the Jasmine Nyree Campus, told board members that roughly 85% of the children in the community are below grade level and that the center is the only one in the neighborhood.

The mayor’s office also cheered the investment.

“The funding provided by the URA for these projects will meet important community needs in our District 2 neighborhoods like community resources, accessibility upgrades for older residents, and access to high quality affordable housing,” Mayor Bill Peduto said in a press release.

— By PublicSource reporter Nicole Brambila.

8/11/20: Memorializing a civic building and a shrine

Pittsburgh’s Planning Commission voted to recommend historic nominations for the former headquarters of Jones & Laughlin Steel Company and the Shrine of the Blessed Mother in South Oakland.

The former headquarters of Jones & Laughlin Steel Company, one of the United States’ largest producers of steel, was built Downtown at 200 Ross St. in 1907, according to the historical nomination form for the site. It has more recently served as home to the Urban Redevelopment Authority [URA], the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh [HACP], and numerous city departments and bureaus. The building is considered a high-quality model of the Jacobean Revival style, City Historic Planner Sarah Quinn said.

“It’s really critical to have protection on this building once it no longer becomes a government facility,” Quinn said. “It’s very nearly intact on the exterior.”

The Shrine of the Blessed Mother was created in 1956 and is a representation of Catholic culture in the city, Quinn said.

Matthew Falcone of Preservation Pittsburgh, which helped write the nomination, said the site is one of the “most unusual sites that we’ve taken on in our history.” Falcone said he was glad the commission was discussing both the nominations of 200 Ross St. and the shrine, as both sites are connected to the Jones & Laughlin steel plant, he said.

“It’s very apparent to us through some of the oral history that we were able to gather from the families that have taken care of this shrine, that they were all steel workers,” Falcone said.

Mayor Bill Peduto on Tuesday issued a statement supporting a historic designation for the Shrine of the Blessed Mother. The site has historically served as a place of cultural significance for passersby, he said.

Pittsburgh’s Planning Commission is also considering the historic designations of an elementary school and rowhouse on the North Side.

Spring Hill Elementary School, located on 1351 Damas St., has a “rather interesting,” history, Quinn said at the meeting. The school features two wings, one constructed in 1896 and the other in 1908.

A component of the building’s significance is its association with Marion Steen, who worked as an in-house architect for Pittsburgh Public School’s Board of Education in the 1930s and dealt with challenges of modernizing the facility.

“Steen was able to retain a high point of evolution of Pittsburgh school design by consistently meeting the new education requirements in a succession of high-quality architectural designs,” Quinn said.

The building’s construction and subsequent renovations represent three eras of design, Quinn said.

The facade of the Hanauer-Rosenberg house. (Planning Commission photo)

The Hanauer-Rosenberg house, a rowhouse located at 417 Lockhart St., was the former home of Pauline Hanauer Rosenberg, founder of the National Council of Jewish Women.

“It was her efforts founding, shaping and leading the National Council of Jewish Women that had a state, national and international impact,” Quinn said. “Prior to the founding of the NCJW, no such organization existed on a national level for Jewish women.”

The Planning Commission is expected to consider the designations at its next meeting.

— By PublicSource editorial intern Emma Folts.

8/11/20: Fifth Avenue renovations

The Planning Commission also discussed an application for exterior renovations to the lobby of PNC Bank, located on 249 Fifth Avenue. The project would add new swing and revolving doors to lobby entrances.

The renovations will use materials that match the existing construction, said Adam Yaracs, a project manager with architecture and interior design firm IKM Incorporated.

The project intends to begin renovations to the exterior on Sept. 8., completing the exterior work Nov. 4. Construction will occur on weekends and in the evenings and is not expected to disturb pedestrians or existing plazas, Yaracs said.

The application will be further reviewed at the commission’s next meeting.

— By PublicSource editorial intern Emma Folts.

8/11/20: Grandview Avenue construction

The Planning Commission also reviewed an application to demolish three buildings and construct eight single-family townhomes from 511 to 525 Grandview Ave.

Commissioner Becky Mingo asked how long-term maintenance of the common cleared areas, including stormwater retention, would be handled. The developer will have a homeowners association agreement, but it has not yet been drafted, said Kris Senko, of Senko Construction.

Mingo also expressed concern with an intersection near the proposed complex. The sidewalk in front of the building isn’t very wide, and the fencing and landscaping will not make crossing the street at the intersection easier for groups of pedestrians, she said.

“You haven’t made a very friendly environment to pedestrians, and I understand that it’s the way it is now,” Mingo said. “But given that you’re doing a large project, I’m wondering if there aren’t some things that you could do to help soften that difficult intersection.”

Nathan Hart, a principal architect with Hart Architectural Services, said there’s a “real possibility” of moving the sidewalk closer to the buildings or widening it, as well as creating a line of landscaping between the curb and the sidewalk to improve pedestrian safety.

The application will be further reviewed at the commission’s next meeting.

— By PublicSource editorial intern Emma Folts.

July recap:

News from the City Planning Commission, Urban Redevelopment Authority, Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh and more

$2.5 million for steam? Allegheny County pact with Peoples raises costs, contracting questions

How fast has UPMC grown? The answer in four charts

Tenants call for ‘rent strike’ against Wilkinsburg’s biggest landlord — and fear retaliation

Develop PGH archives

Mass ejection? Impending evictions in Allegheny County drive a scramble for changes and dollars

99 people who will help shape the Pittsburgh region’s recovery

16 authorities that influence our economy and the people who serve on them

Penguins pledge ‘full commitment’ to Lower Hill’s rebirth after URA approval of developer and plan

From the Hilltop to North Side, Black flight drives population change in Pittsburgh

Despite the Penguins’ decision to walk from Lower Hill, URA board will meet Thursday about development terms

Once a foil of the city’s master builders, Sam Williamson now guides the URA while leading a union, advocates and a political ‘army’

June 2020 Bulletins

Prior 2020 Urban Redevelopment Authority coverage

Prior 2020 City Planning Commission coverage

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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Rich is a reporter and assistant editor at PublicSource. He joined the team in 2020. He reported for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette from 2005 through early 2020, leading projects on child poverty, the opioid...