Housing: Ministry wants to keep apartments out of universities' hands | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Housing: Ministry wants to keep apartments out of universities' hands 

Oakland Planning and Development Corporation is working to keep a 30-unit West Oakland apartment building affordable -- and out of the reach of the neighborhood's universities.

The building, located at 141 Robinson St., is currently owned by another Oakland community group -- Breachmenders Ministries, which is getting rid of its real estate after being crippled with debt from two instances of embezzlement.

"[OPDC is] unique in Oakland in terms of their interest in low-income housing," says Breachmenders board member Lynn Portnoff. "This could have gone to an institutional buyer that would not necessarily have had a neighborhood focus."

Breachmenders closed all of its programs in June 2007 and aims to unload all of its properties by June 30 while "continuing its legacy of low-income housing," Portnoff says.

The problem is the property sits on one of the frontlines of the ever-intensifying race for Oakland real estate between large institutions and entrenched ordinary people.

"There's no vacancy in Oakland," says David Blenk, OPDC's executive director.

The building is less than a mile from the Oak Hill plot of land that the University of Pittsburgh acquired last year despite resistance from residents. Robinson Street also forms the western border of Carlow University's campus.

Last March, Hill District residents, Pitt representatives and Mayor Luke Ravenstahl came to terms over a deal that created 450 new homes for the community and an extension of the university's upper-campus playing fields.

Portnoff calls Oak Hill part of "the changing nature of what was on our western flank."

The other problem with the Breachmenders-OPDC plan is that 141 Robinson brings with it considerable debt. In addition to a PNC first mortgage, which OPDC plans to pay off with a mortgage from another bank, Breachmenders took out a $947,000 loan from the Urban Redevelopment Authority 15 years ago, of which less than $17,000 has been repaid.

OPDC is willing to assume part of that debt, but is asking the URA to forgive as much as $600,000. And on top of that, OPDC is asking the authority for a new $100,000 loan for emergency repairs, insurance and general operations.

"That's the problem with 141," Portnoff says, "that the URA will restructure the debt with a new owner."

The URA board voted Feb. 14 to allow Breachmenders, OPDC and the staff of the URA to continue ironing out the details of the deal, but board chair Yarone Zober, who is also Ravenstahl's chief of staff, says that he wants to talk to Breachmenders to see whether other options for keeping the building low-income were explored.

"Closing an organization with totally volunteers [and some part-time consultants] is a huge undertaking," Portnoff says, "and frankly we don't have a Plan B on that one."

And, as City Councilor and URA board member Tonya Payne points out, the debt on the property makes it undesirable to other low-income developers.

"In the end, who else really wants it," she says. "We've got to start keeping some integrity to these neighborhoods. ... I can tell you Pitt buys it [if it goes on the open market]."

"These people are needed in the community. They were born and raised here," says Sharon Mitchell, a nine-year resident of 141 Robinson. But she points out that as Breachmenders has disassembled, the building has fallen into disrepair.

"They don't keep up on the little stuff that could enhance the building," she says, listing plumbing and lighting in the parking lot as her top concerns.

"I think the [units] need repairs in order to turn over," Blenk agrees, adding roofing, windows and heating to the list. "It has a lot of cosmetic things wrong with it."

Florence Andrews, a neighbor of the building for more than 30 years, paints a less flattering portrait of 141 Robinson, underscoring the OPDC's need for an additional loan.

"That place is filthy on the inside," she says. "Give it to the students."

For their part, the universities are keeping mum.

"We don't comment even on the existence of negotiations for possible properties," says Pitt's John Fedele. "We neither confirm nor deny."

Carlow's Louise Cavanaugh Siannameo says only, "We're interested in any property that's logically adjacent to our campus."

According to a URA director's report, Breachmenders' financial woes stem from "two financial embezzlements ... [and] accordingly, the operation of 141 Robinson Street has suffered considerably."

Portnoff explains that the initial embezzlement was compounded when a non-staff consultant, hired to help Breachmenders rebound from first case of embezzlement, ended up bilking the nonprofit. In 2006, the consultant pleaded guilty to forging a check while working with Breachmenders. Portnoff puts the resultant debt at about $200,000.

Blenk says that about a year ago, Breachmenders approached community groups and experts, asking for financial advice.

Blenk says that work on heating in the building would probably not take place until June, so as not to disrupt the tenants' utilities mid-winter. But OPDC cannot make any concrete moves toward acquiring the property without first securing funding.

"We need to close [on the property] before Breachmenders ceases to exist," he says.



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