Oakwatch talks Over-crowding

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Oakwatch talks Over-crowding

Oakwatch. Image: Jeff Ahearn / Assistant Visual Editor

Oakwatch. Image: Jeff Ahearn / Assistant Visual Editor

Oakwatch. Image: Jeff Ahearn / Assistant Visual Editor

Oakwatch. Image: Jeff Ahearn / Assistant Visual Editor

By Elizabeth Lepro and Dale Shoemaker / The Pitt News Staff

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When Hanson Kappelman attended college in Ohio, he fought for student independence.

More than 30 years later, Kappelman, now living in Oakland, thinks residents need to follow the rules.

At Wednesday’s monthly Oakwatch meeting, Kappelman and several other permanent Oakland residents, like Janice Lorenz, who lives on the corner of Fifth Avenue and Neville Street, talked about stolen street signs, public drunkenness and over-occupancy in their neighborhood.

Oakwatch, a community group Kappelman and Geof Becker helped create in 2011, is a coalition of Oakland stakeholders, including Pitt and Pittsburgh police, community members, Pitt SGB members and numerous city officials, that holds monthly roundtable discussions to tackle issues in the community. Among the issues Oakwatch members discussed at their meeting at noon Wednesday, Sept. 16, in the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh building, over-occupancy was the biggest concern.

Under current city code, no more than three unrelated people can share a house or an apartment. But in Oakland, which is rife with four-, five- and six-bedroom apartments and houses, some landlords do not follow this code.

Two landlords present at the meeting on Wednesday, including Ken Eckenrode and Bob Harper, said they think there is a better solution to over-occupancy than stringent enforcement of a code. According to Harper, who owns property at 314 S Neville St., the current system only pinpoints offenders, which he says is unhelpful.

“You can’t fix every problem with a hammer,” Harper said. “Sometimes you need amicable dialogue.”

Pitt police officer Guy Johnson, who was present at Wednesday’s meeting, said over-occupancy isn’t his main focus.

“Our biggest focus,” Johnson said, “is trying to make sure our students are good neighbors.”

Johnson said Pitt Police had recorded 118 incidents since the start of Pitt’s fall semester. Daniel Herrmann, commander of Pittsburgh Police Zone Four, who was also present at the meeting, said police had recorded 37 non-traffic citations to the Oakland community in the same period.

Kappelman said he understands that enforcing over-occupancy isn’t high on Johnson’s to-do list. Johnson said the point of Oakwatch is to connect Pitt police with the Permits, Licensing and Inspections Department of Pittsburgh­ — an office that is focused on solving over-occupancy.

For example, Pitt Police may issue a citation to a house for disruptive partying that includes the names of everyone on the lease. If that number exceeds the three allowed residents, police can pass that information to the PLI at an Oakwatch meeting, according to Kappelman.

Pitt Police are tackling the increase of disruptive partying during the first few months of the school year, Johnson said. From the start of orientation until November, Pitt Police assign four officers a night to patrol Oakland streets on Thursday, Fridays and Saturdays — in what Pittsburgh police described as an “increased impact” measure.

It’s not just students who disrupt the community, Kappelman said. Landlords violate housing laws when they allow over-occupancy.

There have been two successful cases against these landlords in Oakland, according to Kappelman. One high profile case was that of Charles Eckenrode, who Judge Eugene Ricciardi fined more than $250,000 for allowing more than three residents to live in a house in South Oakland.

Kappelman said while these successful court cases have been a start, he hopes to see more landlords getting in contact with members of Oakwatch, as connection is what the organization is all about.

Ken Eckenrode, a landlord who owns property on all major streets in Central Oakland, said enforcing the over-occupancy code shouldn’t be Oakwatch’s first concern.

“I understand where they’re coming from,” Eckenrode said. “But safety should come first. And it’s not a safety issue.”

Lorenz said the city should enforce the code with no exceptions.

“[Students and landlords] should be doing what’s right, a rule’s a rule,” Lorenz said. “If you have uneven application of a rule, you have unfairness.”

Despite the tension at the Oakwatch meeting, Kappelman commended Pitt’s administration and Student Government Board for taking definitive steps to defend students and mend relations with permanent residents.

John Wilds of Community and Governmental Relations said his office receives complaints about over-occupancy from Oakland residents. In these cases, Wilds said, Pitt’s main concern is student safety.

“If there’s over-occupancy, there is the possibility of that house being unsafe,” Wilds said, adding that safety hazards like extension cords running under rugs, have led to fatalities in the past.

To engage with students, Wilds’ office will host tenants’ rights workshops in November. These workshops will address the responsibilities of landlords and lay out to students the specificities of leases and codes, including the three-person occupancy code.

On the student end, SGB Governmental Relations Chair Pat Corelli said SGB will establish a Student Tenant Association by the next Oakwatch meeting on Oct. 21.

The association, Corelli said, will consist of an eight-member executive board that SGB will select after an application process — which SGB will release on its website. Five of the eight members, headed by executive, programing and advocacy directors, will attend local neighborhood meetings, representing the five areas where students live: West Oakland, near Allequippa and Robinson streets; South Oakland, beyond the Boulevard of the Allies; Central Oakland, which encompases all streets from Forbes Avenue to Parkview Avenue; North Oakland near Dithridge Street and non-Oakland, encompassing all other neighborhoods where students live.

SGB formed the association, Corelli said, to disseminate information about dealing with landlord complaints and to mend relations with Oakland residents. If a student has a complaint against his or her landlord, he or she should contact the association, Corelli said.

The association will hear the student’s complaint, then either direct the student to the city’s building inspection office or to its lawyer, which offers free consultations to all Pitt students. Though the association will not act as a direct mediator, Corelli said, it will help students and keep landlords honest by providing a platform where they can communicate openly.

The Student Tenant Association will also address trash issues, field complaints from permanent residents and host a Renter’s Rights Seminar.

“When students aren’t represented, their interests get harmed,” Corelli said. “We need to represent the students’ stake in Oakland.”

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story stated that Charles Eckenrode was present at the Oakwatch meeting. Rather, Ken Eckenrode was present. The story has been updated to reflect this change.

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