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PENN HILLS (KDKA) — Lawrence Beck got help from his landscaping work colleagues Thursday, carrying his furniture out of the Valmar Gardens Apartments in Penn Hills.
“The whole situation, to be honest, is kind of ridiculous,” Beck says, “To have a landlord up and run out and leave us with a bunch of bills that aren’t our responsibility.”
Beck enjoyed living at the apartments until this latest landlord. Now, the need to move has become increasingly obvious.
“I wasn’t ready; the water was shut off, leaks in the building, mold, stuff like that,” he said. “Now, they can’t turn the water back on in my building because some pipes are missing. People found out and came through and stoles the pipes.”
“The water being turned off made it unsanitary,” says 17-year resident Leroy Jones who remembers a much better time four landlords ago. “It was actually really nice.”
Penn Hills Code Enforcement officer John McCafferty says the landlord is nowhere to be found, and the lack of water is a sanitary health hazard and a fire hazard.
“Our concern is the residents could be in danger here if there is a fire. It’s happened before,” he said.
So, late last week, Penn Hills Manager Scott Andrejchak says they had no choice but to issue an order to vacate to the residents.
“It was an emergency situation. We had to get the building vacated because there was a lack of basic utilities, no fire system, no water,” Andrejchak said.
The residents got some legal help and got a court order getting the water turned back on. Penn Hills worked with Duquesne Light to restore power and general contractor Don Dais donated his time on Thursday to get the fire alert system back in operation.
“With that being restored, we’re lifting the order [to vacate],” Andrejchak says. “Even though the order has been lifted, we are encouraging the residents to continue to make other arrangements and seek other housing because there are other code issues that are going to continue to happen. So they get more time to look for another place. We are working with people as best we can. It’s a better situation today than it was yesterday.”
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The issue continues to be the absentee landlord. McCafferty says the only contact has been an email, some time ago, from the landlord, claiming to no longer own Valmar Gardens.
McCafferty says, “He’s more into avoiding contact than anything else. He didn’t apply for Occupancy Permits for any of the units. So we have not been in these units for inspections, and we don’t have an occupant list. We don’t know who is living in all the units.”
When KDKA visited the Mount Washington address listed as the office of PA Real Estate Development Inc. there was no answer to our knocks. The building is a residential apartment building.
The Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office detectives and Penn Hills Police were scheduled to begin looking into the situation Thursday.
When the almost $2 million Valmar Gardens Apartments changed hands in January for $1,000, the Allegheny County Housing Authority tried to contact PA Real Estate Development Inc. to see if it would be continuing to house subsidized-housing families. When ACHA could not make any contact with the landlord after multiple tries, it started helping residents move out in March.
To date, 21 of the 34 subsidized families have moved.
Many of those still living at Valmar Gardens, like Leroy Jones, know they may have to leave eventually, but are hesitant to do so.
Jones says, “I would like to stay here until this is resolved completely.”
So the residents will stay put, at least through the weekend. The next step is a court hearing on the injunction to restore water service scheduled for Monday afternoon. The water authority needs the landlord to bring the buildings up to code, and pay the bills. The water authority says it also has had no luck contacting the owner.
Beck isn’t sticking around to see what the judge decides to do. He will be settling into his new apartment in Swissvale with “a lot more peace of mind, more quiet, less traffic.”