Oakland group targets overcrowded Pittsburgh housing

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A raucous party in March on Parkview Avenue in Oakland wasn't just reported to police. Oakwatch, a resident code enforcement task force, got a call, too.

A University of Pittsburgh police officer visited the next day and learned seven people were living there. In April, the city's Bureau of Building Inspection cited the owner. A court date is pending.

City code restricts to three the number of unrelated residents in one unit, no matter how many bedrooms it has, but an unknown number of landlords flaunt the law or aren't aware of it. It's a hard crime to prove. Some keep names off mailboxes or have one name on a lease to hide the fact the limit is exceeded.

Oakwatch co-chairman Geof Becker said the practice is "the single-most corrosive factor in destroying quality of life. A lot of these properties are deteriorated and endanger students, too. There is more trash, more cars, more risk of fire. It can actually kill a neighborhood."

"What is the mentality of a landlord who stuffs too many people into a place?" said Oakwatch co-chairman Hanson Kappelman, "What does that say about his attitude about other ordinances?"

Residents formed Oakwatch after completion of the Oakland 2025 plan in 2011. Oakland Planning and Development Corp. provides the group administrative support. Over-occupancy was identified as a priority issue in the plan, "and while some things in it are long-term, this was something we could start on right away," Mr. Kappelman said.

Oakwatch has recently pressed for action in two other examples of over-occupancy, which loud parties revealed in March, on Lawn Street and Dawson Street. The cases are pending court action.

In the past 12 months, Oakwatch and its partners have brought 17 targeted properties into compliance and has 20 shifts of residents doing patrols. The focus isn't just on over-occupied properties; Oakwatch also works against illegal dumping, property neglect, graffiti and underage drinking.

Each month, Oakwatch meets to plan actions to clear items off its list of "most egregious examples" of code violation, Mr. Becker said. Representatives of the mayor's office, city council, the Bureau of Building Inspection and public safety and the University of Pittsburgh regularly attend these.

"In three years, Pitt has gone from saying, 'We're concerned about your concerns, but we don't know what we can do,' to being proactive partners," Mr. Becker said.

Pitt's office of community relations meets with new students to advise them of their responsibilities and distributes a 20-page handbook, "Student Guide to Campus Life." Under the heading "Three is company, four's a crowd," the occupancy code is cited with this directive: "Your best strategy is to be aware of this as you are searching for housing. This violation may result in fines, evictions and other adverse outcomes."

John Wilds, assistant vice chancellor for community relations, said Pitt's role is in large part to ensure student safety. "We have been working hard in collaboration with Oakwatch."

Maura Kennedy, chief of the Bureau of Building Inspection, said Oakwatch's prioritizing of properties and its eyes on the ground help the city be more precise in its response.

"The issue might be in a backyard, and we might not see it," she said. "They're great at alerting us. On inspections, it's not always clear how many people live there."

Mr. Becker and Mr. Kappelman said there aren't as many disruptive parties as there used to be, but there are still some doozies.

Such events have tormented long-term residents on and near Beeler Street in Squirrel Hill for years when they took action to help the city get a rare victory against a landlord. Oakwatch leaders cite that vigilance as their inspiration.

Leading to a guilty verdict in January 2012, residents near three properties on Beeler and one on Ungar Street did what city Councilman Dan Gilman said is necessary to ferret out illegal housing practices.

Landlord Keith Bayley was found guilty in magistrate's court of housing too many students at all four addresses. Then chief of staff to then city Councilman Bill Peduto, Mr. Gilman worked with the city solicitor's office and nearby residents to prove the numbers. On appeal in Common Pleas Court, the guilty verdict was upheld. Mr. Bayley appealed to Commonwealth Court, which ordered the city to mediate a settlement, which led to his selling several properties.

"The success in that case relied on the diligence of dozens of neighbors to develop overwhelming evidence," Mr. Gilman said. "We subpoenaed the U.S. postal service [whose representative] testified how many people they delivered to on a regular basis. We also had evidence of Bayley advertising availability of space on Craig's List, and countless witness accounts."

Mr. Becker said a landlord who overfills housing units "stands to lose a lot of money adhering to the code. If I were that landlord, I would be unhappy about Oakwatch."

Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com and 412-263-1626.

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