High-rise apartments can reinforce the sense of isolation that already threatens low-income elders. Add security guards and a management office that, like a school principal's, is located near the front door, and the greater neighborhood can seem remote.
So some community advocates are trying to connect high-rise residents to their neighborhoods.
Angela Howze-Mendoza, a Hill District Consensus Group organizer, is active in outreach to high-rises and other subsidized elder housing in the Hill. She said this population "definitely" needs more encouragement.
"We have been trying to organize block clubs and tenant councils, but many [high-rise residents] don't feel they have a voice beyond management."
Terry Doloughty, a community development specialist for the Community Technical Assistance Center, has begun outreach to help tenant councils take shape and reach out. He has added two high-rises -- Irvis and Goodwill Plaza in Sheraden -- to his list for advocacy and visited the low-rise communities of North Aiken in Garfield and East Hills, both of which he said provide many services to residents.
Goodwill Plaza, a Section 8 building of apartments in Sheraden, is starting from scratch in reforming a moribund tenant council, he said.
Those residents' issues include "lack of contact with the landlord, a maintenance man who is off-site, and if something happens they don't have his phone number. A high number of people are in wheelchairs or in assisted care, and the manager is there from 8-4." There are photos on the wall of people who are not permitted in, but they are sometimes admitted. "The room with vending machines is locked at 8 p.m."
Management at Goodwill Plaza could not be reached for comment.
At a meeting to form the new tenant council, Mr. Doloughty said, "A guy told me, 'We need something to do. People sit around and mope.'
"Sometimes people feel as if they only belong in that building."
The council at the K. Leroy Irvis Towers in the Hill has been a member of the consensus group for several years, attending their meetings and inviting its representatives to theirs. Last year, the consensus group recruited the Hill District's youth green team to plant flowers and clean up around Irvis Towers.
With George Gist as its president, the Irvis tenant council has been pro-active seeking the outside community. Mr. Gist was re-elected in October to the office he has held for five years as an outspoken critic of Arbors Management.
"The tenant council had to force them to put up a picture of the man the building is named after," Mr. Gist said, speaking of the first black speaker of the state House of Representatives. "There's a computer room, and none of the computers work."
But he said a lot of residents are "happy with things the way they are and tell me, 'George, don't make them put us out.' "
Ms. Howze-Mendoza, whose mother was a former president of the Irvis council, said Irvis residents have many social opportunities and services, including a food bank, cookouts, a Christmas party and bingo.
"Most of their problems have been with management," she said. "They initially came to us seeking advocacy because a lot of times seniors aren't listened to. The last incident, Mr. Gist contacted me and I contacted George Moses who contacted someone at [the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency], who then contacted Arbors Management, and the problem went away."
Mr. Moses, an advocate of low-income housing and former board chair of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, said he recalls the issue was that management was charging people for large garbage.
Patty Recklitis, president of Arbors Management, said her company provides good service and that, in her opinion, the council's complaints were unwarranted. She declined further comment.
"There are issues like this in high-rises all over the city," Mr. Moses said. "People often accept what management tells them because they may not know the rules and regulations and don't want to risk losing their housing. Without family support and with the Department on Aging overwhelmed, it's difficult to get some things addressed," he said. "That's why community is so important, to have a resident organization work with management to head off issues and problems."
Some subsidized housing for elders is owned privately and managed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, or vice versa. Some is privately managed and owned by the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh.
At Ebenezer Towers in the Hill, Marlene Jackson, a resident who once was active on her resident council, said it "has not reached out to the community as far as I know," but it does plan activities for Ebenezer residents. "If they got involved in the community, they could really make a difference."
Mr. Doloughty said every housing community provides for a tenant council but some are threadbare.
"There might be one person running it who doesn't know there's help out there," he said. In many cases, they don't have a letterhead, a logo, a computer or the ability to use one.
There are other inhibitors, he said. Some people think they need permission to assert themselves, or they're intimidated.
"I've heard people say many times, 'Be happy with what you've got and don't rock the boat.' If someone does speak out at a meeting, five or six people might back them up, and sometimes it's minor requests. If management could do some of those minor things, the councils could work on more positive stuff."
Rosemarie Tolliver, the Irvis tenant council treasurer and a resident there since 1995, said the council has "more going on now in the advocacy of residents. If we're all working together, I think we can bring about change."
The value in reaching out to the consensus group, she said, "is that they seem to know how to get things done."
The tenant council operates on modest fundraising and dues of $10 a year, she said.
"We hadn't gotten furnace filters changed for over two years and when [Mr. Gist] called Duquesne Light to see how many times it should be changed, they said four times. Because of some outreach, we got them all changed in 2012.
"We have no computers, but now we do have a letterhead."