Myrtle and Mabel on a very chilly day at the Penn Plaza Apartments on January 7, 2017

On Friday, January 7th, I bundled up in my feather down coat, took the 64 bus from my home on Shady to the Giant Eagle Market district, and walked the rest of the way up Negley Ave in the fifteen degree cold to meet my friends, Myrtle and Mable, two of the last residents at Penn Plaza Apartments. Both women in their seventies had been displaced multiple times over the past years. After their homes in Auburn Towers had been torn down, both had moved to the Penn Plaza Apartment building – which then had also been torn down. Both had been promised the right of return to homes in Larimer that had not been fulfilled. Now both refused to be shuffled away from their home neighborhoods again. They were determined to stay in their apartments until they found something decent and affordable either in East Liberty or in Larimer. And they were determined to stick together in one firm resolution. They would stand for no more nonsense.

I had a bunch of house thermometers in my backpack for them and a few other residents who had complained of the cold in their apartment. When I buzzed Mabel’s place, she came downstairs to let me into the building in her fuzzy slippers and thick robe over several layers of clothes underneath. She gestured at herself and harumphed as she opened the door. In her apartment I gave her a thermometer, made sure that it was placed more than two feet from the outer wall, and more than three feet above the floor as per Allegheny County code:

Allegheny County Health Department Rules and Regulations: Article VI

    A. Every dwelling occupied during the heating season shall have heating facilities which are properly installed, maintained in a safe and good working condition, and capable of safely and adequately heating all habitable rooms, rooms containing a toilet, bathtub or shower, communicating corridors within dwelling units, and community corridors within rooming houses 
    from rooming units to rooms containing a toilet, bathtub or shower. 
  2. A temperature of at least sixty-eight (68) degrees Fahrenheit shall be provided in all dwelling units regardless of thermostat location when the outside temperature is ten (10) degrees Fahrenheit or above during the heating seasons..
  1. For the purposes of this Section, all temperatures shall be measured at a distance of at least three (3) feet above the floor level and no closer than two (2) feet from an outside wall.

I asked Mabel to make sure that she left her thermostat set as high as it could go. I would be coming back the next day to take photos of the temperature reading, her thermostat, the date, the time. We both headed down to Myrtle’s apartment. We found her just us bundled up, but huddled under several layers of blankets and quilts in bed.  I didn’t feel even slightly tempted to take off my feather down coat as I took photos of the ice coating her windows.


Ice on Myrtle’s window pane at Penn Plaza Apartments on January 7, 2017.

Why were the apartments so cold? Both women felt that the landlords were literally trying to freeze them out of their homes, to make them accept that they would have take whatever they could get wherever they could get it. The ice was a big, fat “Get Out” sign. Many of the other residents had gotten the message and given in, even if all that they could find was way out in Penn Hills or McKeesport or any of the other suburbs where housing was much cheaper, but also much farther from public transit, grocery stores, their churches, their doctors, their friends, and family. Neither Mable or Myrtle had cars. Myrtle had serious health concerns that meant she had to visit her doctor regularly. Mabel’s daughter was also in terrible health and Mabel visited her almost every day. They took the bus everywhere. The costs to move out of their neighborhood were just too much to take.

Such displacements are now common in our city. The costs of gentrification, the loss, the impacts on health and on hearts are often too much to bear, as documented by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Myrtle and Mabel said that many people in the building had been getting sick over and over again. They said that a few people had died in the past couple of months, they weren’t sure what of.

What good would documenting the temperatures do? I went up and down the halls knocking on all the doors of people who had told me that their apartments were cold. Several of them asked me that question. Many said that they had rethought their initial request for me to give them thermometers and record the temperatures so that they would have a solid foundation of evidence to present when they made the request of their landlords to address the heating problems. They were frightened that LG Realty would take retribution in one way or another, either directly by evicting them earlier than March 31st before they found another place, or by indirect little revenges like “losing” their mail, or by or blacklisting them to their next potential landlords. They didn’t have the energy, the money, the time to fight such reprisals as they felt they were already experiencing. They were scared to even gather data on their conditions, much less to speak out about it to the landlords themselves, much less the press, or lawyers, or housing advocates, or the City or County governments that might help enforce the basic code of livability that any landlord should meet in return for regular payment of rent.

The very essence of a chilling effect is an act of deterrence. While one would normally say that people are deterred, it seems proper to speak of an activity as being chilled. The two concepts go hand in hand, of course, in that an activity is chilled if people are deterred from participating in that activity. (Frederick Schauer, “Fear, Risk and the First Amendment: Unraveling the Chilling Effect.”

When I told her a few people were too petrified to even record their apartment temperatures, Myrtle got right on the phone and called two of her neighbors. “You got to record those temperatures if you want anything done about them. You got to speak out. No good to you or anyone to just let them do us this way.” She handed me the phone and I received an invitation to come on back down with the thermometer for their apartment.

“No way I should have to get up under all my covers and stay in bed all day just to stay warm.” Myrtle declared to me and Mabel as I hugged her goodbye.  “I’m not going to let them do us like that. ”

Powerful words to remember on Inauguration Day, from a woman who some might consider as too poor to afford the courage. Myrtle, on the other hand, considers fear itself to be a poverty she will have nothing to do with.




About helengerhardt1

Helen Gerhardt: Pittsburgher, writer, member of the Commission on Human Relations: nothing written at this blog reflects the views or positions of the Commission.

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