'No kid ... should be living in these conditions'

Social workers, inspectors came and went, but one worker took action

On Monday, Kul Poudel packed up the townhouse in Carrick he had called home since moving from a refugee camp in Nepal, forced out by the Allegheny County Health Department after the complex's owner, Davin Gartley, failed to fix chronic water and sewage problems.

He moved his family just a few hundred yards away, up a set of broken concrete steps and past a crumbling garage, into his brother's apartment, also owned by Mr. Gartley. The small, two-bedroom unit now houses eight people -- including three young children. And while he no longer has to contend with a putrid puddle of sewage when he leaves his townhouse, the apartments have other problems, including broken screens that the children use to crawl out onto the second-story deck, peeling paint and malfunctioning radiators. Most frighteningly, there is lead in the paint that showed up in the blood of his 17-month-old nephew, Prashant Poudyel.

While the townhouses were evacuated after Mr. Gartley failed to clean up sewage, the apartment buildings are full of families, many of them Bhutanese refugees like Mr. Poudel, and many of them members of an extended family. A city council staffer who visited the property last year described it as slum-like, with its old and cracked paint. There are broken windows, sagging ceilings and according to the city's Bureau of Building Inspection, no smoke alarms. Inspectors have found 195 code violations in the apartments alone, and another 152 in the now-vacant townhomes.

"In terms of houses I've seen in poor repair, this was very, very poor," said Maura Kennedy, the bureau's acting chief. "Frankly this is a very extreme situation."

Mr. Gartley has blamed Pennsylvania American Water -- which attempted to hold him responsible for a water line leak -- for some of the problems, and also said he could not afford to fix the sewage problems because his tenants failed to pay rent. His tenants countered that they refused to pay because they had no water and sewage was seeping through their lawns.

Mr. Gartley insisted he was providing the community a service by providing people affordable housing, with two-bedroom units running $500 to $600 a month.

"They're more than blessed to be up there," he said of the refugees.

None of the problems cropped up overnight. The Carrick properties, which include two large apartment buildings and the row of townhouses, came to the county's attention after Mr. Gartley began to fall behind on his taxes in 2006. The county has threatened to sell the properties at sheriff's sale, and city building inspectors have visited numerous times since at least 2008.

Social workers and inspectors from the city and county came and went. In the end, it took a series of calls from a Columbia Gas meter reader, Mary Arnold, to spur officials to serious action.

"I was just outraged. It's just pitiful. There's no kid ... who should be living in these conditions here," she said.

Her call to the county health department, to Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak and to several others prompted a full-scale response. Ms. Kennedy visited and sent inspectors through all of the buildings. The health department moved first to force Mr. Gartley to clean up the property, and then to shut the townhouses down when it became clear he could not clean it up. (The apartments are located on another part of the property).

The limitations of the law

Why did it take so long? The reasons are complex. In some cases, the residents were reluctant to call the health department, fearful of being kicked out. In others, there was a lack of communication among all the agencies that got involved.

The case also is a stark illustration of the limitations of the law. Mr. Gartley, described by deputy health director Jim Thompson as "extremely recalcitrant," has evaded compliance even after being threatened with $2,500 in fines and jail time.

"You can only bang your head against the wall so many times," said Ms. Rudiak. Before she was elected, in 2008, she called 3-1-1 to report broken screens at the property when she visited to canvass for President Barack Obama. "There's no easy answers."

"You can imagine the frustration at community council meetings when folks say to my office, 'Why don't you do anything with those Berg Place apartments?'," she said. "We're trying."

According to her office, the city in 2007 explored acquiring the property because it was more than a year behind in taxes. But it decided not to move forward because it did not have the resources or the capacity to help three buildings full of residents find new homes.

From 2008 to 2010, while Mr. Gartley fell further behind on property taxes, inspectors visited the apartments four times in response to complaints. In some cases, inspectors found no violations. In others, they cited him for issues such as broken sidewalks and an uprooted tree that were taken care of.

In 2013, he was cited for property maintenance issues. Records show that inspectors never returned to see whether the problems had been fixed, and the case never made it to court, where landlords end up when they fail to fix building code violations. Ms. Kennedy, who has been on the job seven weeks, could not say what happened.

That summer, Mr. Gartley shut off water to the townhouse units because Pennsylvania American Water had begun billing him for a leak that was spilling a million gallons a month. To supply tenants with water, he began running garden hoses from the apartment buildings. That's illegal, and in October, an inspector noted it and the health department began sending notices to Mr. Gartley to have the problem fixed. The case eventually made its way to court, where Mr. Gartley was granted a continuance. But then he missed two court dates and a warrant was issued for his arrest.

Though residents said pools of sewage began collecting in October, they apparently went unnoticed by an inspector who visited multiple times beginning Oct. 7. The pool in the parking lot froze over during the winter, and Mr. Thompson, the deputy health director, said it could have been mistaken for melted snow. It was not noticed until March 27.

Some residents, holding out hope that Mr. Gartley would resolve the issue, decided not to call the health department. Alysia Jones, who lived for at least two weeks in a townhouse with the stench of sewage emanating from her basement, said she was also afraid of being kicked out, which is precisely what happened last month with the order to vacate.

Unemployed and with meager savings, she's now living in a hotel with her mother with help from the Red Cross and a church.

"I knew also the more that people called, the quicker that they were going to put us out," she said.

An inspector also visited twice in February, finding tenants were without water because the garden hoses had frozen. Though that's considered a major public health hazard, it apparently did not warrant any further action at the time beyond more citations.

Filling cracked windows

Up at the apartment complexes on Brownsville Road, other tenants dealt with the cracked and unsealed windows by shoving tissues in the cracks and putting blankets and cardboard over the holes.

Indira Dharali, 36, has a hole and several cracks in one of her windows, the result of someone throwing rocks, she said. She called the landlord, as did a police officer who took a report about the vandalism in January or February. The broken window allowed so much heat to escape that she opted to shut her gas off and use electric heaters.

"It's too much problem," she said. "This year, we no use."

In many cases, too, the problems at Mr. Gartley's properties did not rise to a level requiring dramatic intervention. The building code violations, for example, while numerous, do not permit the city to do anything more than issue citations and take Mr. Gartley to court.

And in the case of the lead paint, the county can only cite a landlord if a young child is found to have 20 micrograms of lead or more per deciliter of blood. Lab tests showed Prashant Poudyel lead level was 15, short of the threshold for a citation, but worrisome enough for the county to send an inspector to confirm lead in the apartment and a social worker to check on Prashant's development every month. The health department also sent a letter advising Prashant's parents to, among other things "try to keep your child's hand to mouth activity to a minimum."

"It didn't rise to the level of a housing violation," said Mr. Thompson, even as he acknowledged "any level of lead hasn't been determined to be safe."

Now, the city has assigned an attorney to explore legal options for intervening at the property. Economic Development South, the local community development organization, hopes to attract a developer to buy the whole complex.

But without a buyer, the city's options may be limited. And it has more than the residents' interests in mind. Mr. Gartley also owes the city over $200,000 in back taxes on that property alone.

"We obviously can take the property," said solicitor Lourdes Sanchez-Ridge, "but what are we going to do with it?"

Moriah Balingit: mbalingit@post-gazette.com, 412-263-2533 or on Twitter @MoriahBee.

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