On a late-September day, 10 tenants of Hi View Gardens in McKeesport clustered around a patio, smashing spotted lanternflies and planning next steps in their ongoing efforts to improve their subsidized apartment complex.
“You’ve got to voice your opinions,” urged Tanya Brown, a great-grandmother and leader of the Hi View Gardens Tenant Council, at its Sept. 26 meeting, which attracted residents and a handful of kids. “You can’t just watch the whole place fall apart and not say anything.”
It had been a long road for the tenants at the five-building complex, and just when they thought it might turn a corner, it seemed to hit a dead end.
Complex owner PNC Bank’s effort to sell its affordable housing complexes in McKeesport have stalled. As a result, pledged payments to careworn tenants — tentatively negotiated a year ago but tied to the proposed sale — have not materialized.
While much has improved at Hi View since PublicSource and WESA exposed conditions there and at nearby Midtown Plaza in 2021, residents continue to have serious concerns about maintenance and pests. For the second time in two years, a management company is being dismissed, meaning the residents will soon meet yet another new team of office personnel and maintenance workers.
“When the hell is our maintenance going to fix this shit up?” asked Brown. “It’s terrible, especially for women with kids.”
“And dads with kids,” added resident Devonte Doss, who said it’s difficult to decide whether to let his four children play outside in the complex.
PNC spokesperson Olivia Lammel wrote in response to questions that the bank is “fully committed to residents receiving appropriate service from those that operate the properties.”
Not sliding back
PNC bought Hi View and 11-story Midtown, totaling around 200 units, in 2018. They became part of a nationwide portfolio of a few dozen affordable properties the bank has purchased in an effort both to make money and to preserve housing for low-income households.
By 2021, when tenants first organized the council, health code violations and 911 calls across the two properties had soared, according to a PublicSource and WESA investigation.
In the wake of those findings, PNC pledged investments. It met with Hi View tenants. It made improvements to Hi View’s heating system, improved door locks, replaced roofs and fixed up a vacant structure that had been damaged by a May 2020 fire.
Read more: ‘I have nowhere to go with my family.’
“Tenant council input was valuable because they showed the owners where money needed to be spent on improvements,” said Dan Vitek, an attorney for the tenant council from the nonprofit Community Justice Project. “The collaborative effort between the owner and the tenant council has kept the focus on improving the quality of life and not letting things slide back to the way they were before Public Source and [WESA] first shined a light on the troubles there.”
The bank said last year that it planned to sell the properties.
A recent sale attempt fell through, PNC’s Lammel confirmed, and “the property is actively being marketed for sale.” Any sale would have to have approval from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Guns, glass and ‘extra protein’
Where tenant concerns in 2021 focused on balky heating, leaky roofs and slow response to broken windows and appliances, complaints this season skew more toward public safety and pests.
During the September meeting, Vitek showed a police report indicating a raid a few days before netted seven arrests, nine seized firearms, heroin, cocaine and marijuana.
“It is scary at night to go to sleep,” one resident piped up during the meeting.
“I’m a father first. So my kids’ safety is everything,” said Doss. “So if I feel that my kids aren’t safe to be able to go outside on the playground and play without getting cut by a piece of glass, I don’t want to send my kids outside. But then I have a problem with my kids asking me why they can’t go outside and why they can’t do this, that and the third. I just feel like the property management could do better with keeping up on the grounds.”
Preparing a meal is likewise fraught, said resident Liddie Rutherford, a retiree who lives with her husband in the complex.
“When I’m cooking dinner, I have to keep a can of spray beside the stove,” she said. “I use the can of spray, spray the bug, wash my hands and go back to cooking whatever I’m cooking. … As a matter of fact today when I was cooking, there was a roach above the stove and it almost went into what I was cooking, my meat. I don’t need no extra protein in my meat.”
After WESA and PublicSource first reported on conditions in Hi View and Midtown, PNC in 2021 replaced the properties’ management company, Maine-based Preservation Management Inc. The bank assigned oversight to the nonprofit, New York City-based NHP Foundation, which owns and manages affordable housing in 16 states. NHP in turn hired Strip District-based NDC Asset Management to perform maintenance.
Going forward, NDC “will no longer be involved with Hi View,” wrote Fred Mitchell, a senior vice president at NHP, in response to questions from PublicSource and WESA. He said it was too early to name a replacement maintenance company, but said NHP remains “fully committed to residents receiving appropriate service from those that operate the properties.”
NDC did not respond to email and calls requesting comment. PNC declined to provide more information about the change in contractors.
Vitek told tenants that PNC’s promised six-figure payment to be divided among them, made in light of years of subpar maintenance, was originally to be tied to the planned sale of the property. With no sale on the horizon, the bank and the tenant council would renegotiate the terms, he said, in hopes of getting payment of some tenant appreciation funds this year.
He asked WESA and PublicSource not to publish details of the tenant council’s discussion of the proposed fund, out of concern that disclosures could affect negotiations.
Lammel confirmed the bank’s “intent is to fund the tenant appreciation fund on terms and conditions to be determined” by the parties.
At their council meeting, tenants focused largely on their desire for a cleaner, safer community, rather than any settlement or sale. But the issues are linked, according to Brown, the tenant council leader.
“If they want to sell this property and everything,” she said, “they’d better fix it up way better than what they got it.”
Rich Lord is the managing editor of PublicSource and can be reached at email@example.com.
Kate Giammarise is a reporter covering social services and affordable housing for WESA and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-697-2953.
This story was fact-checked by Sarah Liez.
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Readers tell us they can't find the information they get from our reporting anywhere else, and we're proud to provide this important service for our community. We work hard to produce accurate, timely, impactful journalism without paywalls that keeps our region informed and moving forward.
However, only about .1% of the people who read our stories contribute to our work financially. Our newsroom depends on the generosity of readers like yourself to make our high-quality local journalism possible, and the costs of the resources it takes to produce it have been rising, so each member means a lot to us.
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