Vivian Campbell answered the door of the Mellon’s Orchard apartment building wearing slippers. With two hands on the railing, she pulled herself up a half-dozen stairs to her apartment landing. Inside, two dozen taped boxes were piled in a spare bedroom, where movers left them a year ago.
As part of a massive forced relocation, Campbell, 57, was one of the final four residents to leave the now-demolished Penn Plaza apartments in 2017. Making a three-block move to Mellon’s Orchard enabled them to stay in East Liberty.
Not all relocations are created equal. Some Penn Plaza households secured permanent housing, while others found temporary solutions, ranging from moving in with family to the kind of short-term lease that Campbell signed — one year with no option to renew.
PublicSource profiled Campbell last year as she readied for her move. We returned a year later to learn about her life after displacement, and what the future holds for the vacant Penn Plaza site and the Mellon’s Orchard complex.
While Mellon’s Orchard is being prepared for an overhaul, a community of former residents, housing activists and concerned citizens continue to band together to contest the redevelopment plans for Penn Plaza.
For Campbell specifically, what began as a chance to remain in the East Liberty neighborhood her family called home for five generations, has instead been a year of unrest. The stories and struggles of former Penn Plaza residents continue, and here is Vivian’s.
The welcome mat
On March 31, 2017, a delighted Campbell stood in the doorway of her new Mellon’s Orchard apartment, wearing Converses and a bright yellow Pittsburgh Pirates T-shirt beneath a cardigan sweater.
“Look,” she exclaimed, pointing toward her feet, “the last tenant left their welcome mat behind.”
Standing nearby was Campbell’s new neighbor, the building’s maintenance man. “Actually, Miss, we bought those for y’all,” he said.
Campbell sidestepped a pair of movers carrying a table, and rejoiced, “Come in, come in! See how big this place is.”
It is a spacious two-bedroom apartment, significantly larger than her Penn Plaza apartment. The odor of new paint lingered, but Campbell noticed all the good things — a free doormat, an extra bedroom, more windows and daylight, and a spot on her kitchen counter for her beloved fish, Baby.
“I was going to maybe get myself a real good job and find myself a real nice apartment” to move into before the one-year lease expired, Campbell said on March 15, recalling her outlook on move-in day about a year ago. “And then things kind of didn’t work out.”
‘A one-year solution’
On Campbell’s table lays a letter from RJM Property Management LLC, dated Dec. 16, 2017, notifying Campbell that her lease ends on March 31, 2018.
The letter warned of the “potential consequences of you NOT vacating.” East Liberty Development, Inc., a nonprofit community development group, owns the Mellon’s Orchard apartment building. ELDI’s executive director, Maelene Myers, and ELDI consultant Tammy Thompson were copied on the letter.
The 83-unit Mellon’s Orchard complex used to be a troubled property. It was in “deteriorated condition” and was “the locus of a lot of criminal activity,” said Kendall Pelling, director of land recycling for ELDI. In 2009, ELDI acquired the apartment complex from an absentee landlord, Pelling said. (Allegheny County records show the owner as Mellon’s Orchard Apartments LP.) Since, the building has been improved and criminal activity has been reduced through enforcing lease rules and hiring security, Pelling said.
ELDI has maintained and rented as many affordable units as possible, but the apartment complex has “come to the end of [its] useful life,” Pelling said. “They’re old buildings that need a complete overhaul or to be demolished and built new.”
ELDI has been working for several years to find a way to renovate or replace Mellon’s Orchard, and — prior to the Penn Plaza evacuation — had no intention of renting out vacant units.
But that all changed after fair housing activists, along with former and soon-to-be displaced Penn Plaza residents, rallied on the steps of the City-County building on Feb. 21, 2017, asking local developers to make vacant units in luxury apartment buildings available to the remaining residents. The rally got the attention of Mayor Bill Peduto’s then-chief of staff, Kevin Acklin, who spoke with protesters afterward.
One day later, Peduto issued a letter to several developers, which read, “If you each are able to accept just a few residents, we can make sure that every resident of Penn Plaza is treated with respect and are provided the opportunity to continue to live in East Liberty.”
No units were made available. Instead, several developers and the city’s Urban Redevelopment Authority contributed money to ELDI to make the Mellon’s Orchard units habitable, Pelling said. The funds also subsidized rents to ensure new tenants paid no more than at Penn Plaza. For Campbell, rent was $650 per month.
“Everyone participated in a one-year solution,” Pelling said.
That year has ended for Campbell. The letter ordering her to vacate continued: “We will begin eviction proceedings against you early in April to ensure you vacate your apartment, voluntarily or otherwise.” And, if we receive a favorable judgment against you, which is likely in our opinion, this judgment will become a matter of public record, which may hinder your future attempts to secure future rental property.”
Campbell appears to be even worse off than she was a year ago. What happened?
A turbulent year
“I’m prone to depression,” Campbell said. “I spent a lot of my summer just laying around in bed.”
Campbell took an approved leave from her job training program at the East Side Neighborhood Employment Center (through AARP), where she earned minimum wage for 18 hours of work per week.
Campbell is sharp, articulate and animated when talking about her passions, especially music. “I love Barry Manilow, but I also love Alice Cooper,” she said, standing over two densely packed boxes of records.
Her greatest passion of all is the Pittsburgh Pirates, for which she displays a near-photographic memory of players and games dating back to the 1960s. She carries in her wallet a cherished photo of her and All-Star pitcher Kent Tekulve taken at Three Rivers Stadium in 1980.
But she struggles when discussing the past year. “By the time fall rolled around, I had lost all of my, all of my optimism about finding a good job and finding a new home and, you know…I’m not optimistic about anything anymore.”
And then Baby died.
Campbell left the job training program in January. Then she lost enough weight in short enough time that her doctor sent her to the emergency room, where she spent one night in January and four more in March. Following further testing, Campbell was diagnosed with cancer and will begin chemotherapy in April.
The growing stack of medical papers adds to Campbell’s financial uncertainties, already worsened by the letter ordering her to move. According to the letter, ELDI stopped subsidizing Campbell’s rent on April 1. Her rent has increased to $978 per month for as long as she remains.
Tammy Thompson, an ELDI consultant and primary point of contact for Campbell, confirmed the 50 percent rent increase in an email. Of a potential eviction, she wrote that she “cannot answer to what the management company will do.” Phone messages to RJM Property Management LLC were not returned.
No longer working, Campbell’s income is a $1,000 check sent each month from her mother who lives in Japan.
To secure a new home, Thompson wrote, “Vivian will be required to assist in that search but as long as she needs assistance, I will be there to help her.”
Pelling explained that the goal of long-term housing stability is best achieved through collaboration.“Good communication allows the management agent and the tenant to work together to have a good outcome.”
Once a tenant does find a new apartment, ELDI is able to provide additional support and, if necessary, time.
Campbell said she needs the kind of support that was provided to her by Interstate Acquisition Services (IAS), the company that oversaw the Penn Plaza relocation. “They were really helpful,” she said, adding that the IAS representative made calls for her and took her out to see places.
Pelling declined to note how many tenants reside at Mellon’s Orchard, but when asked if Campbell was being treated differently, he said, “Yes, it’s different because this was intended to be a temporary relocation option.”
Later, he added,”We do not want people to be homeless.”
The future of Penn Plaza, Mellon’s Orchard
During this turbulent year for Campbell, the controversial Penn Plaza site is again under intense scrutiny.
Following six months of arbitration, multiple lawsuits between the city and Penn Plaza’s owners, LG Realty Advisors, were settled. The result was a consent order signed in October 2017 that set the parameters for the redevelopment.
The proposed plans include two multistory buildings with retail and office space. Although a city press release stated that no replacement housing was planned for the site,the consent order compels the developer to use a tax break it’s getting to fund the creation of affordable housing within 1 mile of the site.
About 200 former residents, members of the Penn Plaza Support and Action Coalition (PPSA) and the general public, electrictrified a March 21 community meeting by denouncing the proposed redevelopment, and the order itself.
Peter Kaplan, a retired housing finance professional and volunteer housing advocate from Point Breeze, said the demolition was a “disgraceful chapter” in the city’s history, and called upon the owner to build affordable housing or sell the land back to the City. “The plan to replace Penn Plaza has to heal the damage done by this demolition. Instead this plan rubs salt in the wounds,” he said.
Oakland resident Jess Ansel said the plan only provides the economic benefits of the redevelopment such as tax revenues, but does not address other impacts, as required by the order. “All I can see [from this proposal] is an increase in the separation of families, friends and the destruction of social networks.”
“How can you stand there and say you care about black people in this community having affordable housing?” Racheal Brown, a hospital worker and activist, said to city Councilman Ricky Burgess. Speaking of recently built luxury housing, she said, “Most of the people living in those buildings are not black. Most of the people living in these buildings coming up will not be black.”
Representing the developer, attorney Jonathan Kamin clarified his client’s use of tax subsidies. “We are entitled to have a tax break” as part of the East Liberty Transit Investment District. “We are the first and only developer who has committed a portion of that money to affordable housing,” Kamin said.
The second and final public meeting will be held at 6 p.m. April 16 at Eastminster Church, 250 N. Highland Ave. The development team will present the project to the city Planning Commission on a date that has not yet been set.
And what is the future of the Mellon’s Orchard site? The most viable option, Pelling said, is demolition and new construction of mixed-income rental units, financed with Low Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC). ELDI envisions that 20 percent of the new units, or a minimum of 40, be affordable to people at 20 percent, 50 percent and 60 percent of the area median income. Housing choice vouchers, better known as Section 8, would also be accepted.
When it’s established, a timeline will be communicated to the current residents, and they will have a “first right to return” when the new units are ready for occupancy.
“We want to use our development abilities to create as many options as we can for residents to stay in the neighborhood,” Pelling said.
In a March 22 email, Pelling wrote, “We are very close to a relocation option for Vivian.” When asked via email for specifics, and whether that first right to return would be extended to Campbell, Pelling did not respond.
Campbell found a Notice to Quit from the property manager posted on her door on April 3, stating that eviction proceedings would begin if she did not vacate by April 15. PublicSource obtained a copy of the notice and emailed Pelling to ask if Campbell would be evicted.
Pelling replied that because Campbell took steps to increase her financial stability by applying for Medicaid and Social Security Disability Insurance, ELDI has “identified a housing solution for her and we will not need to pursue eviction.”
Pelling added that ELDI will “review an extension” to Campbell’s lease and work with her to find permanent housing.
Jason Vrabel is a freelance writer based in Pittsburgh. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Maranie Rae Staab contributed to this report.
This story was fact-checked by Mary Niederberger.
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