The following story has been excerpted but is published in its entirety in Shelterforce Magazine. Above photo by Maranie Rae Staab: Mabel Duffy leaves behind her empty Penn Plaza apartment where she’s lived for a decade.
It’s January 2017 on the seventh floor of 5600 Penn Plaza in Pittsburgh, a red brick building with 154 apartment units. Mabel Duffy’s belongings are sealed away in cardboard boxes that were once used to ship fruit and liquor, piled high against the wall of her living room. In her bedroom, more boxes and black garbage bags full of clothes encircle a simple wood-frame bed. A smaller second bedroom is crowded with two single beds for her 20-year-old granddaughter and her boyfriend. Mabel’s home looks as if she’s a few days from moving out.

But she isn’t moving out, at least not yet. It’s been a year since Mabel, 78, was relocated from the building next door. That one was demolished, and this one will soon follow.

Most of Penn Plaza’s 200 evicted residents are gone. Some found new permanent housing while others are bouncing between temporary stays. The 20 who remain have until March 31 to vacate.

Black earmuffs hold down Mabel’s ash-white hair. Her sweatshirt, sweatpants, and white sneakers suggest she’s heading out for the day, but right now she sinks into her worn green armchair. “It’s even colder than usual in here today,” she says to Myrtle Stern, her friend and neighbor from down the hall. “Your place is warmer than mine!” Myrtle erupts with a hint of a smile. “Why you think I’m down here?”

“When I came here nine years ago, I thought I’d be able to die here,” Mabel says. “I don’t want to move again.” Under a small table lamp she sorts through new apartment listings made available that week by the building’s relocation office. “I can’t do this again.”

Penn Plaza is the property of LG Realty Advisors, a “diversified real estate company headquartered in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.” LG has managed the building in the East Liberty neighborhood for decades, but in the summer of 2015, it issued 90-day eviction notices to residents spread across the two-building complex. In response to public pressure, Mayor Bill Peduto’s office intervened, and in cooperation with a residents’ tenant council and community organizers, reached an agreement with LG.

The ensuing Memorandum of Understanding signed by all parties detailed a two-phase eviction process, one for March 31, 2016, and the other for the end of March 2017. Each tenant would receive between $800 to $1,600 in “move-out payment assistance” to cover U-Haul rentals, security deposits, and first month’s rent. LG would bear that cost, totaling approximately $250,000. The city’s Urban Redevelopment Authority paid a nonprofit, Neighborhood Allies, $300,000 to manage the two-year effort. Neighborhood Allies subcontracted the work to Interstate Acquisition Services (IAS).

‘They’re Trying to Freeze Us Out’

On the doors of vacant units in Mabel and Myrtle’s corridor is scribbled in black marker: APPS AND CARPET OUT (“Apps” meaning appliances). Every few days, another tenant is gone, another door written upon. For those who remain, these signs are another reminder that their doors will be written on soon, too.

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