- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 23, 2015

PITTSBURGH (AP) - When ethnic unrest forced Ram Siwakoti to leave his homeland of Bhutan for a refugee camp in Nepal and, eventually, a new life in the United States, he harbored no illusions that he’d continue raising cows and growing oranges and cardamom.

But he also didn’t expect to pay $600 a month so his wife, two sons and elderly parents could share a run-down Pittsburgh apartment with no running water and intermittent sewage service.

That was the plight of the 57-year-old refugee until city, county and, finally, state officials combined to do battle with Siwakoti’s landlord, Davin Gartley.

It’s a case that shows both how and why it is difficult for tenants and government agencies to hold landlords - even those with long legal trails - accountable for alleged slum conditions.

Gartley, 39, has been fined more than $14,000 for city code violations - a fraction of the $52,000 inspectors sought - at the Berg Place apartments, where the Siwakotis gathered water in buckets from a garden hose Gartley ran from a neighboring property. The family used that water to bathe, flush toilets and cook - buying bottled water to drink - as sewage pooled outdoors from backed-up or broken lines, and as water leaked through their ceiling from a broken toilet.

The heat worked only intermittently while this was going on from October 2013 through April 2014, when the county declared the property unfit.

Siwakoti told The Associated Press through an interpreter that he had “some kind of dream” to come to America, but was “discouraged” by living in Berg Place.

But if the state attorney general wins a lawsuit filed in May on behalf of the Siwakotis and other Bhutanese refugees who have since been relocated to other Pittsburgh-area apartments, a judge could ban Gartley from being a landlord in Pennsylvania.

It’s not clear why Berg Place and most of the nine other city properties Gartley or his shell companies own have languished. Gartley and his lawyers did not return phone messages, and Gartley did not respond to a Facebook message or knocks at two home addresses he lists.

He and his girlfriend, Samantha James, face a hearing in February on charges they promoted prostitution at a Pittsburgh duplex that Gartley lists as his home and business address.

A criminal complaint shows that Gartley acknowledged being a pimp and that James told police she helped groom prostitutes. One of Gartley’s properties, a run-down house near Berg Place, was used for the sexual appointments, police said.

Court records show Gartley had two drunken driving convictions, in 2001 and 2009, before four arrests since last year. Three of those cases allege he possessed cocaine, marijuana or illegal prescription drugs, or drove under the influence. He’s awaiting trial.

Those who live near Gartley’s properties suggest they’ve gone downhill rapidly as he’s gotten into drug-related legal trouble.

Cheryl Veatch lives a block away from the complex where the Siwakotis lived from November 2010 until they were relocated last year. “When I first moved into the area 10 years ago, the property was beautiful,” she said.

It’s unclear when Gartley bought the property, now condemned. But it was Gartley who shut off water because of a broken line in October 2013. Gartley came by intermittently - sometimes as often as twice daily - to turn on the outside water supply so tenants could fill their buckets, Siwakoti said.

Life was miserable, Siwakoti said through the interpreter, and he felt sad and neglected.

Court documents indicate Gartley is trying to settle the state lawsuit.

Sadie Martin, a spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office, said that under the law, it “tends to be the responsibility of the consumer to fight for their own rights. That can be difficult because they feel so alone.”

Another difficulty is that the attorney general can intervene only after “a pattern of this practice. We have to see or hear more than one complaint,” Martin said. That can take weeks or months.

Siwakoti “did feel like justice was being served” when he heard about the lawsuit, he said through the interpreter.

While waiting to see whether they’ll collect damages, the family scrapes by as Siwakoti works for a social service agency which pays him to care for his live-in father, Devi, 89, and mother, Krishna, 88.

Gartley, meanwhile, has managed to keep his properties from being sold for more than $25,000 he owes in back taxes and penalties by having his shell companies file for bankruptcy protection, court records show.

Veatch and others who now live near the weed-infested shells of Berg Place complain the buildings are used as criminal hideouts . But they feel worse about what the Siwakotis and other refugees had to endure.

“All the smell, the raw sewage. Nothing was working up there,” Veatch said. “Those people, it was filth they were being made to live in. It wasn’t their fault. It was just a terrible situation all around, for us and them.”

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