For months, a putrid mixture of storm water and raw sewage has pooled outside the town homes on Berg Place in Carrick, a small street tucked behind a row of apartment buildings on Brownsville Road (Update: County officials order tenants to vacate premises).
The modest yards in front of the homes are marred by deep pits covered in flimsy plywood, an incomplete effort to fix problems associated with an unrelated water leak. And on one day this week, more raw sewage soaked one of the front lawns with a child's wagon and toy car nearby.
The problems don't end there. Tenants said that at times during the winter, they had virtually no running water, especially after the landlord shut off their main water supply and rigged a hose to siphon water from the nearby apartment buildings. When the above-ground hoses froze, the water stopped flowing, forcing tenants to haul in water in buckets and old milk cartons to even flush a toilet.
"It just dripped," said Diane Berner, 51, who stayed with her friend who lives in the complex earlier this year. "It was a waste of time to even stand there and fill up a bottle."
For more than a year, public officials have been hounding landlord Davin Gartley to fix problems on his property, pressing him to repair a leak that was draining a million gallons of water a month into the adjacent cemetery, and citing him for unsanitary conditions, illegal plumbing, overflowing trash bins and structural problems.
He has been threatened with fines and jail time, and owes hundreds of thousands of dollars in back taxes on the property. He also has filed for bankruptcy on multiple occasions but said Thursday he's out of bankruptcy.
Despite the fact the property has long been on the radar of public officials, problems have gone unabated, demonstrating the difficulty in addressing properties with chronic violations. Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak, whose staffers have monitored the situation since at least last June, said the city has even explored acquiring the property since it's several years tax-delinquent. A city attorney has now been assigned to the case to explore what other options the city has.
"We've been dealing with this property forever," she said. The case, in some ways, demonstrates "how property law and bankruptcy law prevents us from holding people accountable."
But that may change this week. The Allegheny County Health Department is strongly considering issuing an "order to vacate," which will force all of the tenants from the building until the problems are fixed. Those tenants include four households of refugees from Bhutan, some of whom speak little or no English and are now being assisted by social service agencies.
"It's our opinion that Mr. Gartley cannot fix this unit in time, and we need to take additional actions to protect the people from potential health hazards," said Jim Thompson, deputy director of environmental health for Allegheny County, who added a decision would be made today. "He doesn't seem to have the financial capacity to bring in the help to [fix the problem]."
Mr. Gartley, whose company, R.A.E.D. Investments Inc., is listed as the owner of the property, claims he's merely a victim of his own generosity. He pinned his inability to fix the problems on his own tenants, who he said sometimes don't pay rent.
He claims he's been reluctant to evict them because he said he wants to help them. And he flatly denies they were ever without water, which contradicts what tenants reported and what a county health inspector found.
The problems date to at least early 2013, when Pennsylvania American Water Company notified him a leak was spilling water in the adjacent property, said spokeswoman Josephine Posti. When he didn't fix it, Ms. Posti said the company installed a master meter in June 2013 to force him to pay for the water leaking from the pipe. Previously, each of the tenants was metered individually. Mr. Gartley claims the water company suddenly shortened the timeline for him to fix the problem pipe and he was unable to meet the deadline. He was hit with a $22,000 bill, he said.
At that point, he shut off the water and began running hoses from the upper apartment building to the lower one, hooking it directly into the plumbing so they still had running water. That same summer, staffers from Ms. Rudiak's office also visited the town homes and apartment buildings. Shortly thereafter, staffer Daniel Barrett wrote an email to the city's real estate department.
"It's clear that the apartments are riddled with code violations and certainly fall into the 'slum' category," he wrote. "Most of the residents are Bhutanese refugees, and the landlord seems to be taking advantage of their lack of familiarity with our court systems and their own rights as renters."
In October, an Allegheny County health inspector showed up to investigate complaints about garden hoses supplying water to the town homes and threatened to cite him if he didn't fix it. Two months later, the hoses remained, and he was cited and ordered to appear in court. He asked for a continuance in January, telling District Judge Richard King that he needed more time to repair the leak.
That same month, he was cited again, this time because some tenants had no water service. He then failed to appear at two subsequent court dates, prompting a warrant to be issued for his arrest.
In late March, inspectors found one of the units had no heat, that the trash bins were overflowing and noted the sewage in the front yard. In another unit, an inspector found "ceiling in danger of collapse." But by that time, the water had been restored. He was cited then for the sewage.
Officials finally returned this week, when a Columbia Gas inspector saw the pool of sewage in the parking lot and reported it to Ms. Rudiak's office and the county Health Department. Inspectors from the city's bureau of building inspection found 348 violations in the two apartment buildings and town homes, from rotting decks to a lack of smoke detectors and blocked exits, inspector Maura Kennedy said.
County health officials returned and saw little progress had been made in cleaning up the sewage though he said he planned to have the water pumped out by that evening. On Thursday, Mr. Gartley paid a constable that showed up at the property a $540 collateral fee to avoid a trip to jail.
Mr. Gartley acknowledged the large pool of water has remained in the parking lot for months and said he couldn't clean it up because it froze over in the wintertime. He could not explain why he's failed to clean it up since it melted last month. He was holding out hope that the health department would not issue an order to vacate, though social service agencies had already warned many of the tenants it was a possibility.
Moriah Balingit: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-2533 or on Twitter @MoriahBee.