For five years, unsafe conditions have prevailed at a Swissvale apartment building while the landlord built up a stack of violations. The last straw came last week when Swissvale Fire Chief Clyde Wilhelm issued to tenants a notice to vacate, saying the building had become uninhabitable.
The notice was issued the day the owner, Michael Sturdivant, got a continuance on his summary appeal of a magistrate court's decision that he had violated the borough's building code.
Mr. Sturdivant, whose address is a post office box with an East End zip code, bought the former Longfellow School in 2006 for $577,950. According to Chief Wilhelm, "he has been given citations ever since."
Mr. Sturdivant's attorney, Noah Fardo, said there have been temporary occupancy permits and that his client, a retired public school teacher, has tried to meet his obligations.
"We've been dealing with them for almost a year, and they never gave us any indication they were going to do this," Mr. Fardo said.
"Why now? When did it become unsafe? All that's been done in the last year have been improvements." He did not want to say what the improvements were but said he has "a foot-high stack of receipts."
Chief Wilhelm met with residents at the 18-unit building Tuesday, saying he would work with them on relocation but that he wanted them to be working on a move by the end of February. Tenant Doug Williams said he cited various calls the fire department has had to make, including for fires, and electrical and breaker box problems.
The chief said he felt he had little choice in giving the tenants the notice. It reads that the building "is unsafe and unfit for habitation and occupancy due to various violations of borough ordinances, property maintenance and fire codes."
After five years, he said, the court system "continues to give [Mr. Sturdivant] time to make corrections. It's the game. That's why I had no other alternative but to issue that" notice.
"We have filed 18 $1,000 citations over the two years since I have been chief. The local magistrate has found him guilty but by the time it got to Common Pleas [Court] he was granted numerous continuances. He just appealed the latest round of $18,000 in fines" for not having an occupancy permit for each unit," Chief Wilhelm said.
Mr. Sturdivant appealed the district judge's decision in October. A summary appeal hearing Jan. 24 was continued to March 27.
Mr. Fardo said that since the problem came to public light his client "has certainly been villainized. This is actually a sad story. He put his entire savings into this. This was a dream of his, a retirement plan to renovate the building, an investment opportunity with a lot of difficulties along the way."
Meanwhile, tenants are packing and trying to find other apartments.
Lori Celani wanted to stay in Swissvale. On Tuesday, she said she had found a place. Some tenants are seeking emergency relocation support.
George Moses of the Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania met with tenants in the building this week. He said he would investigate whether their situation qualifies for a state agency's disaster relocation services, "because this is a disaster."
A window in Mr. Williams' apartment has a hole big enough for the towel he and his wife stuffed in it to keep cold air out. Windows in their and Ms. Celani's apartments are surrounded by gobs of sprayed insulation that looks like an accumulation of mustard yellow candle wax.
The apartments' front doors are steel set in wooden frames, some unpainted, some smeared partially with paint. There are 1-inch spaces between the bottoms of the doors and the floor.
One tenant has to go into the hallway to get her refrigerated food. Her kitchen outlet burned out so the refrigerator was plugged into an outlet in the hall.
The recent stress on tenants has drawn them out to talk in the common spaces outside their apartments. "We didn't really know too many people before, but now we're getting to know each other," Ms. Celani said. "The lady next to me is 80-something. There are people with babies. Throughout this past week we have all been saying 'Hi' and 'Bye.' "