Judge throws the book at Oakland landlord

Owner gets $730,000 in code violations


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In what city officials and neighborhood leaders hailed as a victory against troublesome properties in Oakland, a district judge on Thursday fined a property owner $730,000 -- a remarkably high sum -- for code violations at a Centre Avenue apartment building.

District Judge Gene Ricciardi imposed the fine on Squirrel Hill resident Sophia Edgos, who owns the converted house at 4512 Centre Ave. Judge Ricciardi said the building has four apartments, although Allegheny County assessment records indicated that the building has between five and 19.

Records showed that Ms. Edgos and a second person bought the building in 1979 for $32,000; court records now identify only Ms. Edgos as the property owner.

"The fine is significant because the code violations are serious," Judge Ricciardi said after the hearing. The city's Bureau of Building Inspection filed a criminal complaint alleging 10 violations, including broken windows, holes in the foundation, "trash and debris throughout" the property, a lack of smoke detectors and illuminated exit signs, deteriorating chimney mortar and loose bricks.

During an afternoon visit to the apartment building Thursday, trash littered the yard. One window was broken, and others lacked curtains. A ladder rested against a chimney, and empty garbage cans sat in the yard. No tenants appeared to be around.

City council staff members and Blair Kossis, property manager for Oakland Planning and Development Corp., a neighborhood group, said the fine was the biggest they had seen for code violations.

In such cases, Judge Ricciardi said, he mainly wants the landlord's commitment to address violations.

But he said Ms. Edgos wasn't cooperative or remorseful. Asked about the missing smoke alarms, Judge Ricciardi said, Ms. Edgos indicated that she delivered a box of them for tenants to share.

"I found that testimony lacking, seriously lacking," he said. "You just can't deliver a box of smoke alarms."

Ms. Edgos, who represented herself at the hearing, could not be reached for comment afterward. She has 30 days to pay the fine, set up a payment plan or appeal to Common Pleas Court. Often, a Common Pleas judge will reduce fines if the owner has made progress on correcting violations.

Still, Judge Ricciardi's ruling was welcomed by city officials and neighborhood activists who long have battled run-down properties in Oakland, many of them rented to university students.

Other landlords should take notice that "the community is watching, and the judicial system is watching and willing to take action," Dan Gilman, chief of staff to Councilman Bill Peduto, said. Mr. Gilman said the property has been the subject of complaints for years.

The building was ranked No. 1 on the Oakland Code Enforcement Task Force's "top 10" list of troublesome properties, Mr. Kossis said. Oakland Planning and Development sent out an email Wednesday encouraging task force members and other residents to attend Wednesday's hearing.

At Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's request, county officials decentralized housing court about five years ago, meaning cases involving nuisance properties are heard by the district judges who represent the affected neighborhoods. Mayoral spokeswoman Joanna Doven said the change has helped to put more pressure on landlords.

Judge Ricciardi said state law guides the size of fines he levies. In Ms. Edgos' case, he said, he fined her multiple times for some violations because witnesses testified that the problems existed for years.

Judge Ricciardi gave the following breakdown for the fine: $60,000 for trash and debris; $20,000 for the deteriorating chimneys; $50,000 for problems with handrails; $50,000 for the foundation cracks; $50,000 for windows and door frames; $200,000 for the lack of smoke alarms; $200,000 for the lack of illuminated exit signs; and $100,000 for having failed to provide an engineering inspection report.


Joe Smydo: jsmydo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1548. First Published February 24, 2012 5:00 AM


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