Resources can alleviate off-campus issues

By Abbey Reighard / Staff Writer

As wintry mixes carpet the streets of Oakland on a nearly daily basis, housing problems have also plagued students as they trudged from their off-campus properties to class.

Among other domestic issues, frozen or broken pipes and loss of heat or water have been some of the most frequent cold-weather complications.

Adding to a number of resources already offered by Pitt, the city and other local organizations are willing to assist students when problems arise. While many recommend that students directly contact landlords when they encounter housing issues, members of these organizations emphasize the documentation of complaints.

According to Pitt spokesman John Fedele, the University provides several resources for students living in off-campus housing.

The Department of Off-Campus Living can provide students with tips on interacting with landlords.

Fedele said if students seek help from the Department of Off-Campus Living after they have already signed a lease, the department will advise students to communicate with landlords “in a way that is clear and provides a record of the communication.”

Fedele also said that if property conditions become dangerous or uninhabitable, students should contact the City’s Bureau of Building Inspection or the Allegheny County Health Department.

Fedele added that the Department of Off-Campus Living functions primarily to assist students before they commit to a lease, as well as aiding them in becoming safe and more informed renters.

From the mayoral seat

Mayor Bill Peduto is publicly shaming landlords who have multiple code violations in Pittsburgh, and he’s doing it with signs and red ink.

Peduto’s “Operation Red” is a program that aims to improve living conditions by shaming landlords who refuse to address safety hazards within their rental properties by publicly displaying their names and contact information on large signs installed at the sites of the properties.

It has been more than a year since Peduto — inaugurated earlier this month — passed a law informally called Operation Red in December 2012, while he was still a Pittsburgh city councilman representing District 8.

According to Sonya Toler, communications director for Peduto, the program targets “the most derelict properties in the city to shame slum landlords into taking care of them.”

Toler said the program’s name comes from the large red signs that Public Works employees place in front of the derelict properties.

If students feel they are living in substandard housing, Toler said they should dial 311 on the phone to file a documented complaint with the city’s 311 Response Center. The center handles non-emergency questions or concerns from Pittsburgh residents.

For concerns that need more immediate attention — including a lack of  heat, a lack of running water or unsanitary conditions — Toler suggests students contact the Allegheny County Health Department.

Toler said John Jennings, the chief of the city’s Bureau of Building Inspection, identifies the top 10 “most blighted properties in the city” and then requests approval from City Council members to have the signs placed in front of those properties.

Jennings could not be reached for comment.

According to Toler, the Bureau of Building Inspection informs the property owner about the sign, which remains in front of his or her property for 30 days. The number of days can be reduced if the property owner addresses the code violations within that time.

Toler said a property can also be suggested to the chief of the Bureau of Building Inspection to be included in the Operation Red program through a petition signed by at least 25 Pittsburgh residents.

Toler said the cost of the program is minimal. The construction of the signs and the labor costs for Public Works’ employees to install the signs are the only expenditures in the program.

Toler said within the next few years, the mayor’s office will make changes within the Bureau of Building Inspection. While Toler said the mayor’s office hopes to maximize quality of life and safety among tenants of rental properties within the immediate future, conditions are “so bad that we just have to focus on the basics.”

Health and community professionals weigh in

David Namey, program chief of the Allegheny County Health Department, said that if students are experiencing problems with their rental properties, they should first contact their landlords directly to resolve the issue. If coordination with the landlord is ineffective, students can contact the Health Department for emergency and nonemergency situations concerning their housing.

“What happens is when residents file a complaint with the department or the city of Pittsburgh, it can create an upset, irate landlord and an adversarial situation,” Namey said.

In the case of an emergency situation, such as a heating problem in the middle of winter or a gas leak, the Health Department would respond with a prompt inspection.

After an inspection has taken place, the Health Department would then issue orders to the property owner to fix the problem. After the department issues orders, typically over the phone, it will then perform a follow-up inspection to ensure that the property owner executed the orders.

In regard to Operation Red, Namey said the success of the program is likely to be dependent on the individual property owners.

“If a property owner cares about their property and their tenants, I would think that [Operation Red] may have an effect,” Namey said. “But if there is a property owner who doesn’t really care about either, then I think the effects [of the program] could be minimal.”

According to Rick Swartz, executive director of the Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation, students who feel as if they are living in substandard housing should document any complaints and correspondences with their landlords concerning those complaints.

“[Students should] be sure that at some point, there has been a letter given to the landlord pointing out what the problems are,” Swartz said.

Swartz said students should send their letters to their landlords by certified mail and request a return receipt to indicate delivery took place.

He added that students should then allow time for their landlords to respond to letters.

And in some cases, members of city government might be most fit to alleviate a housing issue.

Toler said students can contact the mayor’s office or the office of the City Council representative of their district and a staff member will assist with students’ off-campus housing issues.

“The mayor hopes that [Operation Red] will compel the worst-of-the-worst landlords in the city to clean up their act or sell their properties to responsible property owners,” Toler said. “When slum landlords can no longer hide behind anonymity, they’re much more likely to stop abusing our neighborhoods.”