Home, sweet zone: City officials crack down on overcrowding


Kenneth Ward, Brian Sugarmann and two other roommates have lived comfortably in a four-bedroom apartment on McKee Place for the past two years.

No one sleeps on the floor, the furniture and belongings aren’t crammed up next to each other. Nothing has fallen into disrepair.

“I think you’ll actually be surprised how spacious it is,” Ward said.

Yet, by Pittsburgh law, their apartment is overcrowded. The landlord could face legal penalties for allowing more than three people to reside there, and, if caught, the students would need to find a new place to live.

Like many Pitt students who call the southern-central Oakland area home, Sugarmann and Ward violate a Pittsburgh zoning code that caps the number of unrelated residents in a unit at three.

While Pitt does not keep records on the number of students living off campus, spokesman John Fedele said 7,688 Pitt students live on campus this year while the University of Pittsburgh Fact Book 2015 lists 17, 694 full-time students attending the University.The latter number also includes commuter students who may live with relatives.

All together, an estimated 10,006 students, or about 57 percent, live off campus where zoning codes may affect them.

As part of its 2025 plan, the Oakland Planning and Development Corporation (OPDC) created a code enforcement task force called Oakwatch to eliminate over-occupancy in Oakland.

Over-occupancy, which is implicit in the definition of a “family” in Pittsburgh city code, can lead to increased trash accumulation, violation of fire and safety codes and limited parking spaces, among other issues, according to Oakwatch and OPDC directors.

“There are communities around the country that used enforcement of existing building and zoning codes to help improve quality of life in neighborhoods that were feeling some adverse pressures of being around a growing college campus,” Oakwatch co-chair Geof Becker, who helped form the coalition in 2012, said.

The recent focus on the city’s zoning codes come as part of Mayor Bill Peduto’s plan to improve Pittsburgh housing. Peduto established the Department of Permits, Licenses and Inspections in December, and Magisterial District Judge Eugene Ricciardi, who presides over cases for Oakland, South Side and Arlington, praised his efforts for putting the spotlight on the code.

Becker’s research in graduate school from 2006 at Carnegie Mellon’s Heinz College examined a case study of one block of Ophelia Street in South Oakland, where he found four out of 21 units in violation of single-family dwelling codes. Eight years later, the Oakland Property Progress Report, which the OPDC released for April 2014, lists seven over-occupied units, with four overcroweded units discovered after “disruptive party complaints.”

Landlords often give student renters caught living in violation of code the boot, but only after a sufficient period of time to find a new place. The University assures students that it will help them find accommodations if they are displaced due to overcrowding, according to Fedele.

Seeking lower rent and a house full of friends, fear of displacement doesn’t scare off some students from living with more than two of their friends.

Madelynn Cullings, a sophomore history, history of art and architecture and Italian major, signed a lease on a building owned by John C.R. Kelly Realty in January with two other roommates, though four people will live in the apartment.

“I wanted to have a more social living arrangement and live in a fun environment,” Cullings said.

A property manager at John C.R. Kelly Realty, who would not provide his name and said that all correspondence must go through him, declined any comment regarding student renters.

Pittsburgh city officials’ increased interest in Oakwatch’s initiatives have been the bite behind the OPDC’s bark, according to Ricciardi.

From late 2013 to the end of 2014, Ricciardi fined landlords $200,000 to $650,000 if he found them violating codes. Ricciardi said he is unbiased in the courtroom, but added that these hefty fines are fair, as landlords continue to break the code and puts their tenants’ safety at risk.

“Professionals have put together the Pittsburgh code for a reason. That’s why I get very upset with landlords,” Ricciardi said. “All [students are] trying to do is find decent housing and get good grades. Landlords are only looking for one thing: profit.”

Yet, that decent housing has to come at the right price.Ward and Sugarmann currently pay $514 a month each, which makes the total rent $2,056 per month, not including costs for gas and electric.

Becker said he couldn’t imagine students paying much more than Ward and Sugarmann to live in a South Oakland home.

“No one is going to rent a single family home for $2,800 a month, not in Oakland,” Becker said, explaining that if a student is paying $500 a month or more for housing and is living with more than two other students, the landlord is making an illegal and exorbitant profit.

Jeff Rotter, treasurer of RRG McKee Inc, the company that owns Ward’s and Sugarmann’s building, wouldn’t comment on whether he was aware of specific code violations on his properties, but added that the renters made the decision themselves to live with three or more unrelated persons in their unit.

“I’m not saying it’s right or wrong,” Rotter said. “It’s just that any students living three or more people in an apartment are doing so because they want to.”

Other property managers and students question why these same laws don’t apply to the University.

One of Pitt’s apartment-style residence halls, Bouquet Gardens, sprouted up directly in the center of Oakland, but unrelated students in Bouquet live four to a unit with no legal implications.

“It just doesn’t seem right if Carlow, CMU and Pitt can do it,” property manager for M.J. Kelly Realty, Mike Kelly, said. “How can you restrict students from living around the University?”

Fedele said the University follows educational and medical codes, not residential ones. He also said the City of Pittsburgh and local Oakland neighborhood groups supported the number of students allowed to live in units at Bouquet Gardens, which opened in 1999, because it would “ease housing overcrowding in the area.”

The University’s Office of Community and Governmental Relations (CGR) works to educate students about the code before they sign a lease, Fedele said.

CGR offers a “Student Guide to Campus Life” which offers information on codes and regulations, including a section on page two titled, “Three is Company — Four’s a Crowd!”

The section includes information notifying students that they can contact the Department of Off-Campus Living or the Student Government Board Attorney, as well as ask their landlords to see a copy of the occupancy permit on a house or apartment.

Regardless, many students still seem to be in the dark about over-occupancy and its enforcement.

Sugarmann said found out he was violating a code after overhearing a conversation in class about how police and officials were getting tough on overcrowding.

Sugarmann was thinking of convenience, not zoning codes when he chose his apartment.

“Money was a factor, but [my roommates and I] were friends freshmen and sophomore year,” he said. “We figured living together would save us some money compared to on our own, and it would be better than living with strangers.”

Zoning Administrator Corey Layman said the city has always enforced the code and landlords who break the rule usually do so by limiting three of the four people to sign a lease.

“It’s like speeding,” Layman said, regarding code violations. “Everybody drives over the speed limit, but you’re still speeding.”

For now, diversity is the talk of the town among these neighborhood cooperative groups.

“A healthy community is one that has a variety of ages, backgrounds, incomes [and] points of view,” Wanda Wilson, executive director of the OPDC said.

But according to Wilson, it is neither Oakwatch’s nor the OPDC’s job to make people aware of city code.

“The law is the law, and it’s the responsibility of property owners [to make themselves aware],” Wilson said

City Solicitor Celia Liss said property owners are finding out the cost of violating that law, as the city’s zoning code limits a maximum fine of $1,000 per day for each day the code is violated.

“If we want to encourage compliance with our zoning code, property owners must see that it is very expensive to violate the law,” Liss said.