The Allegheny County Health Department on Friday issued an order to vacate at a long-troubled town house complex in Carrick where the landlord had let plumbing problems continue unabated for months, leaving tenants to contend with a widening pool of sewage in the parking lot and without consistent running water.
The order marks the culmination of about seven months of attempts by public health officials to get the landlord, Davin Gartley, to clean up the property. They cited him numerous times and threatened him with fines and jail time. Mr. Gartley referred comments to his attorney Friday, but gave a number for the attorney that was disconnected.
The move to vacate the property also is highly unusual for the health department, which strongly urges compliance and avoids displacing tenants when possible.
"This was a rare case where we have a really recalcitrant landlord," said Jim Thompson, deputy director of environmental services for the health department. He said Mr. Gartley, who has filed for bankruptcy in the past and owed more than $200,000 in back taxes on all three buildings, appeared to lack the financial means to fix the problems.
While tenants were growing intolerant of the pools of raw sewage and problems with running water, many now face the challenge of finding housing and storage on short notice. The estimated 14 tenants were hand-delivered notices Friday and must be out of the units by the end of the weekend. The tenants include four families of Bhutanese refugees, and several more families live in Mr. Gartley's other apartment buildings, which are now under scrutiny after city building inspectors found more than a hundred violations there.
Gyan Bista, a refugee who lives in Bellevue, came to Berg Place on Friday to visit his elderly mother-in-law and her family. He said she moved here in August 2011 from a refugee camp in Nepal, arriving with her son, daughter-in-law and infant granddaughter. They moved into the complex at the recommendation of Jewish Family and Children's Services, which assists refugees. At the time, though, the building was not in such poor condition, said Leslie Aizenman, the director of refugee services for JFCS.
The living room, with newer carpet, bore little evidence of the turmoil outside, where deep ditches marred the yards and the stench of sewage hung in the air. And Mr. Bista said the conditions had deteriorated recently. Their daughter could no longer play outside because of the standing sewage and ditches, covered with flimsy plywood and laced with caution tape.
"It is very sad," Mr. Bista said. "It was good at the beginning."
Now, the family will have to cram in with relatives at another apartment. But there's no place to store their furniture, Mr. Bista said.
The family will get help from Immigrant Services and Connections, a consortium of six organizations that has banded together to link immigrants facing language or cultural barriers to existing social services. The effort is funded by the county Department of Human Services and JFCS is leading the effort. Ms. Aizenman, who said the agency is helping the family find housing, said the move could be especially agonizing for the refugees, who were driven from their home in Bhutan and have spent years in refugee camps in Nepal.
"They've already been traumatized," she said.
Allegheny County Department of Human Services also was assisting residents, as were private social service agencies.
Alysia Jones, 32, has had raw sewage in her basement for at least two weeks with the dank smell permeating her entire unit. She was without consistent water for about a month and a half this winter, when Mr. Gartley began running garden hoses from another of his properties to supply water to the town homes. But now she faces the prospect of having to enter a homeless shelter and give up her dog. She had filled out a form for housing assistance Friday provided to her by Community Human Services.
"It's almost like a double-edged sword," she said. "They're going to fix it, but we can't stay. It's a no-win situation for the people down here."
Ms. Jones, like others, said the situation at the complex started to deteriorate about a year ago. The property first showed up on the radar of public officials more than a year ago, when Pennsylvania American Water informed Mr. Gartley he had a leak that was spilling a million gallons of water a month, dumping some of the excess into the adjacent cemetery. When he didn't fix it, the utility retooled his meter to force him to pay for the leaking water.
He responded by shutting off the water to the tenants in the town homes and running over-ground hoses from nearby apartment complexes. But the hoses froze in the wintertime, and the water flowing to the tenants slowed to a drip. Water has since been restored to most of the tenants, but even Friday, a tenant was readjusting the hose to release a kink to get water.
Health inspectors got involved in October of last year. They began citing Mr. Gartley for illegal plumbing in December and later cited him for failing to provide water to his tenants, for the standing sewage and for a range of other problems, including overflowing trash bins and a collapsing ceiling in one of the units.
Mr. Gartley blamed many of the problems on the tenants and said that some of them hadn't paid their rent.
"All they do is [expletive] and complain," he said. "If they would pay their rent, I would [fix it]."
Ms. Jones was among them, but she said she stopped paying when the water was shut off and continued to withhold rent when sewage seeped into her basement and feet away from her front yard.
On Thursday, when asked about the possibility the town homes would be shut down, he said: "It'll save me $2,000 in eviction papers."
Moriah Balingit: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-2533 or on Twitter @MoriahBee. First Published April 25, 2014 11:01 AM