Hearing begins on housing program

The legal dispute over a transitional housing program in Bellevue launched into full gear last week with the first of at least two lengthy sessions before the borough’s zoning hearing board.

The issue drew large, angry crowds to Bellevue Council meetings last spring when long-time residents of the townhouses on Laurel Avenue and Gilliland Place began receiving notices that their leases would not be renewed because all 46 units had become part of a master lease held by the Zero Six Eight corporation, which planned to rent them for transitional housing.

According to Zero Six Eight founder Daniel Bull, the intent of the program was to make safe housing available to people who would have difficulty renting from commercial landlords because of a criminal background, a bankruptcy, or other circumstances that might make them vulnerable to homelessness or unsafe housing.

Bellevue officials had no problems with the program until neighbors began complaining about what they termed criminal and threatening behavior from some of the new tenants. That prompted a review of the program by code enforcement officer Jim Del Croix and solicitor Matt Racunas. In May, Del Croix issued notices of noncompliance with the occupancy permit that declared each of the townhouses was to be used only as a “single family dwelling.” Those notices were issued to only 10 of the 46 housing units.

The Gilliland Laurel Apartments (GLA) corporation, which owns the units, appealed the determination that the units were not being used as single family housing, denying that and also advancing an alternative theory that if the use of the property does not fall under the designation of single family housing, it does not fall under any category described in the zoning code. That becomes relevant because a property use not covered by the zoning code by law must be permitted anywhere in the municipalities subject to the code.

The challenge facing the zoning hearing board will be in applying the law defining “single family dwelling” to the facts presented, a challenge made more difficult because state law has made it very clear that “family” must be construed as something much broader than a group of people united by blood or marriage.

In his opening statement to the board, borough solicitor Racunas said that it was Bellevue’s position that the housing program did not fall within the single family use allowed by the occupancy permit for two reasons: first, that the use was transient in nature, and second, because there was a “pure profit motive” driving the program.

Racunas, however, frequently interchanged the words “transitional” and “transient,” at one point maintaining that transitional housing by definition was transient in nature. Transitional is generally used to describe housing for people who are moving from one stage of their lives to another, for example, from inpatient housing to independent living. Transient describes housing that is used for brief periods of time, more akin to a boarding house or hotel. Racunas pointed to the fact that, originally, tenants were given only month-to-month leases for a single private bedroom, and access to common areas of the unit such as bathrooms, living rooms and porches, and kitchens.

Attorney J.J. Richardson, representing GLA, pointed out the difference between “transient” and “transitional” under the law, and noted that every landlord has a profit motive, something that is not prohibited by law.

Testimony by three witnesses for GLA established that changes have been made in the way the townhouses are leased that brings them even more into line with the legal definition of “single family” use. Property owner Eric Kraemer, along with Bull and Zero Six Eight housing director Wendy Barbeau presented evidence that all tenants of an individual townhouse now sign a one-year joint lease. They also meet with each other and Barbeau to reach a “household agreement” that sets rules for things such as overnight guests, smoking, etc.

Bull was passionate in his defense of the program. saying “We are a lease that you can build your reputation from,” noting that 90 percent of the tenants are referrals from agencies such as the Veterans Leadership Program, Chartiers Center and others assisting victims of domestic violence and people with disabilities. Most of the tenants, he said, are coming to the program from homelessness or some other type of housing program, and all are carefully screened to ensure that they might benefit from the opportunity to create a history that will allow them to move on to traditional commercial apartment leases or home purchases.

Kraemer testified that, currently, six of the units fall into the category of federal Section VIII housing, which serves low-income and disabled citizens. Because of the legal problems now being faced, he said, he has been talking with Allegheny County about bringing all 46 units into the Section VIII program.

After nearly four hours of testimony, the hearing was recessed to Sept. 27 at 6:30 p.m., at which time residents of neighboring properties will be given an opportunity to speak.