Peering through glasses, 52-year-old Tyrone Goodwin reread the first lines of a letter from his apartment management company, Aishel Real Estate.
“As you are aware, effective November 1, HUD is discontinuing subsidy to the property. This means that they are no longer paying the rent for your unit.”
The letter was dated Oct. 27, 2017, just four days before the subsidy for his one-bedroom apartment in Homewood was to end. And this was the first he’d heard from the landlord of his Bethesda-Homewood property about it.
“‘As you are aware?’” Goodwin asked aloud.
For 14 years, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development [HUD] had been paying a portion of Goodwin’s rent because he earned limited income as an independent bookkeeper. The owner of his Tioga Street apartment building, Homewood Residential, LP, had contracted with HUD to subsidize rent in its Bethesda-Homewood portfolio, which included this and 31 other properties spread across Homewood, Larimer and Garfield. Aishel Real Estate, located in Wilkinsburg, had managed the properties since 2012.
Now that the contract between HUD and Homewood Residential was being terminated, and upon news of a change in ownership, Goodwin, along with up to 400 other tenants, wondered if he’d be losing his home. Many of the Homewood tenants were lifelong residents of the neighborhood who didn’t know, as winter approached, where they’d move or how soon they’d need to go.
Adding to the uneasiness for Goodwin, he’d soon be preparing to represent himself in federal court over how this housing debacle was handled.
Failed inspections and a “voluntary” move
Goodwin settled into the cushion atop his swiveling desk chair as he thought back.
Sure, earlier in the year he’d received a notice from HUD that said the properties had failed an inspection, that the landlord had 90 days to make repairs, but the letter gave few other details. Then he received another HUD notice, dated Sept. 29, informing him that “voluntary relocation assistance” was available for tenants choosing to move. The letter encouraged him to attend an upcoming tenants’ meeting. There was no other mention of failed inspections, much less any changes to his yearly rental agreement.In Goodwin’s apartment, ceiling plaster had cracked and buckled. Paint had peeled. Water leaked from the ceiling during heavy rains. Aishel had replaced some of the plaster, but ruptures reappeared. As this was a third-floor unit in a three-story building, Goodwin was convinced a deteriorating roof was the cause; HUD’s inspection confirmed that it’s in need of repairs.
That same inspection found mold and mildew in the building’s hallways and stairwells, missing exit signs and fire extinguishers. At least one unit had roaches, exposed electrical wires and inoperable windows that should serve as escape routes in case of fire. The building’s entryway door didn’t lock or even latch properly. In the basement, there were clogged and broken sanitary pipes causing a “sewer odor,” according to the inspection.
These conditions weren’t news to Bethesda-Homewood tenants. Several said conditions had become worse over the last couple of years. What was news was the offer of assistance in a “voluntary” move.
Goodwin eventually realized he might need to start paying the full rent – $732 in his case – and the gas, electric and water utilities, which up to that point had been covered. Fortunately, that hasn’t happened yet, but he still doesn’t know what will come of the needed repairs and the “health and safety issues” found in inspections.
Goodwin shook his head at the contradiction. How is this a voluntary move?
In the end, he believed he was being told: “OK, you can stay there, bro — but the building might fall down!”
“My rights were violated”
Goodwin attended the Oct. 11 tenants’ meeting at the Homewood-Brushton YMCA.
Reggie Samuel, managing director at Leumas Residential, informed community members that his agency, under contract with HUD, would help tenants with moving expenses; in Tyrone’s case, this would mean up to $100 to cover transportation costs to find a new place, $200 toward application fees, and then $1,000 for the move. A representative from the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh [HACP] said tenants could get a Section 8 voucher, which enabled them to live in any HUD-approved unit. Tenants were given a list of area properties where they could use the voucher. What tenants weren’t told was why they have to move in the first place. The meeting became heated when a resident raised this point.
Meanwhile, local news outlets reported that the Bethesda-Homewood properties failed the three most recent HUD inspections and scored among the lowest of more than 900 HUD-subsidized multifamily properties in Pennsylvania. So Homewood Residential had defaulted on the subsidy contract for not maintaining units in “decent, safe, and sanitary condition.”
In response, Rashad Byrdsong, founder and CEO of the Community Empowerment Association [CEA], began hosting biweekly meetings of a newly formed Section-8 Tenant Council. Goodwin attended. He talked all this over with Kevin Quisenberry, a lawyer with the Community Justice Project, who was representing several Bethesda-Homewood tenants advocating with the city to intervene. Quisenberry wanted elected officials to pursue a plan that preserved the HUD subsidy, repaired and rehabilitated the properties under new ownership and prevented displacement.
Goodwin understood Quisenberry’s strategy: Goodwin grew up in Homewood and graduated from Westinghouse High School. He knows people want to stay in their homes, and displacement would further fragment the community.
But his greater concern had become the process leading up to this point. Goodwin recalled that each year when he renewed his lease, he received a brochure entitled “Resident Rights & Responsibilities.” He found his copy and discovered this: “Residents have the right to participate in or be notified of, and comment on, the following: non-renewal of a project-based Section 8 contract, and any other action which could ultimately lead to involuntary temporary or permanent relocation of residents.”
Goodwin reread the brochure many times, then concluded: “I believe my rights were violated.”
Piecing together an argument
Goodwin began building his case.
He doesn’t have a degree in law, much less a license to practice law in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Goodwin does have a master’s in business administration from Point Park University and a master’s degree in theological studies from Pittsburgh’s Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary. His bookshelf holds volumes on Greek and Hebrew, titles such as “Cities of the Biblical World” and “Paul the Apostle.” He knows research and rhetoric. As a bookkeeper managing clients, he is organized and detailed.
At his corner desk, Goodwin shuttled between a laptop and desktop, spending hours online poring over something called the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2017 and many other documents, some of them hundreds of pages long – the Multifamily Assisted Housing Reform and Affordability Act of 1997, HUD’s Compilation of Basic Laws.
Goodwin found that HUD policy seemed to indicate the agency should have been consulting with the local government, and yet the city seems to have been just as unaware as Goodwin of the failed inspections and HUD’s cancellation of subsidies; in October, Councilman Ricky Burgess proposed a plan to monitor HUD properties more closely.
Also, Goodwin came to believe that HUD, seemingly contrary to agency guidelines, didn’t consider the state of the local housing market when terminating its contract. In a city facing a 17,000-unit shortage of affordable housing units, low-income tenants have few viable options. And Goodwin believed HUD was supposed to consider alternative actions: they could have imposed penalties against the owner or even sought court-appointed receivership of the properties, which happened recently to similar HUD-housing in Cincinnati, Ohio. Put simply, he concluded that instead of HUD following due processes of law under the U.S. Constitution, “they’re trying to get everybody out before they figure out what the hell is going on.”
Nonetheless, Goodwin began packing up his apartment and preparing for the worst. He applied for a voucher. The HACP had waived the usual waitlist and extended the 120-day deadline to find a landlord to take the voucher. Then Goodwin realized the property list provided by Leumas didn’t make it clear to him if these units were comparable to where he currently lived, though HUD guidelines require this.
“Getting a voucher is not the same as getting housing,” Goodwin concluded.
Jerome Jackson, executive director of Operation Better Block in Homewood, said his staff worked through the list and found many properties did not accept Section 8 vouchers or else had a waiting list. A few, he said, “were known slumlords.” In the end, staff found a total of about a dozen available units, though in Homewood alone some 96 Bethesda-Homewood households needed a new home.
“If people spent their time taking that list, starting from the top and going down to the bottom,” Jackson said, “they would have wasted their time.”
Civil action 2:17-cv-01537-MRH
One day in December, Goodwin received a phone call from a Leumas Residential representative.
“Hey, Mr. Goodwin, you still looking for a one-bedroom apartment?” he recalled the voice on the other end asking.
Goodwin looked out his apartment window, his blind half drawn. Snow lined the sidewalks and streets. He responded to the caller: “No. It’s wintertime! I’m not looking for an apartment.”
Then he mentioned the civil action he’d just brought against Leamus Residential. The agent seemed unaware of it.
On Thursday, Dec.14, Goodwin filed civil action 2:17-cv-01537-MRH in the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania, a process he was able to complete online. Goodwin filed the case as a class action, but then learned he needed legal representation to do so. A couple weeks later, he submitted the suit pro se – representing himself – against HUD, Aishel Real Estate, Leumas Residential and HACP. The property owner, Homewood Residential, was not listed as a defendant.
Aishel Real Estate and Leumas Residential did not respond to requests for comment on Goodwin’s suit. Spokespeople for both HACP and HUD said they do not comment on pending legal matters. The mayor’s office and the Urban Redevelopment Authority have been working with HUD to retain the subsidy, either with Bethesda-Homewood or nearby properties, an effort that the Community Justice Project’s Quisenberry has continued to pursue.
“I believe that Mr. Goodwin has the best interests of residents in mind,” Quisenberry said, “but my clients determined that his strategy of filing suit first, without trying to obtain cooperation from local stakeholders, city officials and ultimately HUD, would likely not be the most efficient way to achieve their goals, which is why they have not sought to participate in the suit.”
Randall Taylor, an advocate for affordable housing who was forced out of his Penn Plaza apartment in East Liberty, is impressed by Goodwin’s efforts. “This guy’s not an attorney... I think that is amazing work by a private citizen to jump up and try to defend himself in the courts.”
The CEA’s Byrdsong would like to see the formation of a citywide resident council to address HUD housing concerns such as this. “Oftentimes community advocates come out and drive the initiative, but what I’m attempting to do is organize the actual tenants and residents, make sure they can advocate and have a voice for the situation.”
As Goodwin waited to hear how those four defendants would respond to his lawsuit, he received a letter in the mail from attorney Jennifer O. Price, who is based in Murrysville. She’d heard about Goodwin’s case from the Pittsburgh chapter of the NAACP, which Goodwin had reached out to.
After corresponding with Goodwin over the last week, Price decided to take on his case as a class-action lawsuit.
“Mr. Goodwin has dedicated a tremendous amount of time and energy into compiling evidence and researching laws relevant to the case,” she said, adding that other tenants should reach out if they want to be included.
“Changes the dynamic,” Goodwin said of Price’s involvement. “Before, it was just me.”
He laughed. “Some of my friends said, ‘Tyrone, I don’t believe that HUD believed that a person like you would be on the subsidy.”
This story was fact-checked by Juliette Rihl.
Mark Kramer is a freelance writer and creative writing teacher based in Pittsburgh. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.