By Peter Cherry
On August 21, a small group of tenants from Valmar Gardens in Penn Hills, a working class suburb of Pittsburgh, as well as other tenants who have been organizing under the United Neighborhood Defense Movement (UNDM), gathered to protest attempts to evict them outside the Penn Hills Municipal Building.
Valmar Gardens is a four-building apartment complex which has changed ownership several times over the years and has been plagued by mysterious fires that were found to be intentionally set, utilities that have been shut off, among other acts aimed at making life there unlivable for its tenants. They are facing another attempt at eviction from a mysterious shell company called BDCTC LLC, who recently acquired the property. After BDCTC allowed for a water shutoff at the building to go unresolved, Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas Judge Christine Ward gave permission to Penn Hills police and Allegheny County sheriff’s deputies to harass tenants into leaving on behalf of BDCTC, who claim that they want the tenants out to rehabilitate the property to “better serve the community.” Many have chosen to stay in spite of the eviction order, and in fact have never received any of the $2,500 in relocation payments that BDCTC claims to be paying out.
BDCTC has acted to conceal its ownership; it is not registered as an entity and has no office or number for tenants to call for problems with the property. Since making their false claim of wanting to help tenants move, it has labeled many residents “squatters” because they have misplaced lease agreements. It is currently seeking out an order of possession through the same judge who permitted the last eviction, Judge Ward.
Tenant Andre Mobley, a longtime resident at Valmar Gardens in Penn Hills, demanded that the municipality’s administration name the owner of the building and condemned them for their relationship to the owners. At one point, Penn Hills municipality manager Scott Andrejchak came outside and demanded the protesters move out of the parking lot, leading to Andre and UNDM members to denounce him and the municipality for their friendly relationship to BDCTC while failing to speak to the tenants on their issues at all. Chants of “shame” drowned him out as he left back to the building.
Another tenant, Anthony Straughter, spoke on the conditions in the building: “The toilet clogs, the sink is done. But other than that, it’s nice. It ain’t a bad apartment. We keep the place cleaned up. Like Andre said, we keep the grass cut, make sure there ain’t no trouble, we take the trash out, we don’t have no people running around that don’t belong in the building.”
Since the property was abandoned by the landlords, tenants like Andre and Anthony have started to do all the work to maintain the property themselves. The class nature of the landlord, who passively collects the rent and further profits from not investing in any maintenance at all was clear to all tenants there that day. One of the many frustrations tenants had was that the municipality could not be counted out to help with providing public services.
At the end of the rally, Andre pledged that the crowd would get bigger the more the municipality dodges its responsibility. Andre emphasized the personal cost this has on working class families: “Let me tell you a story. Can you imagine being in the middle of a money crisis, and someone burns down your apartment because they have no other way to get rid of you? They burned the apartment and we had to leave immediately. So I got my daughter and we went to get our stuff, and I said grab some toys because we have to get out of here. She sat on the floor and cried a fit, ‘why do I have to leave my toys?’ and she would not move. Because she’s been tossed around by landlords so much– You know it’s sad when you’re a father and you have no answers for the bureaucrat that she has to put up with, the landlord, and the municipalities, all working together.”