Apartment Complex Situation | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Apartment Complex Situation

Apartment Complex Situation
Katharine Lee describes the situation at the Bry-Mard Apartments as a "hot mess."

When East Hills resident Gina Robinson saw an argument taking place at the Bry-Mard Apartments building across from her home last July, "It was like, 'Here we go again.'"

She wasn't even all that surprised when one of the men began threatening the other with a length of pipe.

Since the building was purchased last spring, neighbors say Bry-Mard residents have been involved in a spate of untoward incidents, ranging from panhandling to outright violence. The most notable incident happened in early August, when Charles Williams, 46, was accused of stabbing a Bry-Mard resident in a building hallway. But Robinson says there have been numerous other incidents which haven't attracted headlines: On one occasion, she says, a Bry-Mard resident approached Robinson's 26-year-old daughter and 7-year-old grandson for money. (Robinson's son drove the man away.)

Bry-Mard's owners "are not concerned with what happens outside their doors," says Robinson.

"It's a hot mess," agrees Katherine Lee, 63, who also lives near the complex. The neighborhood has been quiet for the 25 years she's been living there, she says, but now the tumult at Bry-Mard "disturbs our peace on a daily basis."

Residents say that the building's management has dismissed their concerns -- and that if city officials had done their jobs, none of this would be happening in the first place.

Complaints about Bry-Mard are fairly new. Located at 8750 Bricelyn St., the property was originally a Catholic elementary school; in 1988, the Pittsburgh Diocese sold it to Bry-Mard Apartments Inc. for use as apartments for senior citizens.

But in March 2007, management of the building was taken over by Ralph Falbo Inc., and the population began changing. Older residents began moving out, and younger residents -- many with apparent behavioral problems -- began moving in.

One neighborhood resident, John Nicholas, says he no longer feels safe in the area after a resident threatened him with a brick while he was out jogging.

"These things are occurring," says Nicholas. "We have approached the management of that facility; however, nothing's changed."

Concerned residents like Lee and Robinson convened the East Tri-Borough Neighborhood Association, a neighborhood group in East Hills that strives "to clean up our neighborhood and get it back to the way it was," Lee says. Robinson began photographing incidents and turning the photos over to Pittsburgh police.

A review of police call logs shows that since March 2007, there have been more than 30 police reports related to Bry-Mard and its tenants. Complaints range from terroristic threats and theft to those labeled simply "suspicious activity."

Equally upsetting, say residents, is the idea that the building's population could change so drastically without neighbors being told.

City-issued occupancy permits specify the approved uses for a building. In Bry-Mard's case, the occupancy permit allows the complex to house "37 dwelling units ... for the elderly."

Residents say that when Falbo took control of the facility, it should have changed the use permit to reflect the new population: The company, after all, began welcoming not just senior citizens, but younger residents with physical or mental disabilities. A change in use requires approval by the city's Zoning Board.

However, Duane Hampton, vice president of property management for Ralph Falbo Inc., says a change of use is not required because there are still elderly citizens living on the property.

Hampton says that two of the original tenants still live in the building. (The others were not kicked out but chose to leave, he says.) About 20 percent of the building's 36 residents are elderly.

Falbo conducts a screening process on each new tenant, which follows guidelines set by the federal department of Housing and Urban Development, and includes criminal background checks.

Phillip Manion, the primary manager of the Bricelyn Street property, has evicted six residents since March 2007. Among them are both the men involved in the lead-pipe dispute Robinson witnessed.

"We responded as best we can," says Manion. When a complaint arises, "We take it up with the individual resident."

And while Hampton doesn't deny problems with some residents, he says he thinks neighbors are stereotyping his tenants.

"We are not putting our heads in the sand. We are addressing those situations," he says. But while "[s]ome of [the complaints] have been true, most of them are not. ... These bad things that have happened are not indicative of the people living in the building.

"There are a number of folks from this community that don't like to be painted with a broad brush," says Hampton.

One of them is John McCray, 72, who moved into the Bry-Mard in April. "You have to live in the building to know the impact [of the complaints]," says McCray. "If people don't live here, they really don't know what's going on."

Members of ETBNA remain unconvinced. The group petitioned city council for a Sept. 25 hearing, where they pled with council for aid.

"Please help our neighborhood; we have young children and a number of senior citizens in our neighborhood," Lee told council.

Representatives of Falbo did not attend the hearing, but some city officials noted that fair-housing laws prohibit discrimination on the basis of physical or mental disability.

Permit requirements "are wholly enforceable and we're not enforcing them aggressively, consistently, then we've got another issue," said council President Doug Shields. "[I]f we let that slide, then you've got a problem with every neighborhood in Pittsburgh."

But it remains unclear what, if anything, is being done about the issue.

"Our records show that the building has been cited [for change of use]," City Planning Director Noor Ismail told council at the Sept. 25 hearing. But Hampton says the complex has never been cited, and City Paper was unable to find a citation on file. Ismail did not return repeated calls for clarification.

Council has since held a post-agenda hearing on the broader issue of group housing, and councilors expressed an interest in tightening requirements. "People in [these] neighborhoods shouldn't have to live next to an addict," said city Councilor Jim Motznik at the Oct. 2 hearing. City solicitor George Specter noted that Mayor Luke Ravenstahl was working on a bill to hold owners of "disruptive properties" accountable for the actions of tenants.

That measure faces numerous challenges, however, and for now, both Falbo and ETBNA are trying to work their differences out on their own. "We want to be good neighbors," says Manion.

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By Mars Johnson