City tosses strikes at some landlords

Warns of penalties for disruptive activity

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City property owners who house drug dealers and users, public drunks, bad neighbors or runaway dogs should watch their mailboxes. Mayor Luke Ravenstahl may have just fired a warning shot across your bow.

Late last week, the city sent 39 letters to owners of properties at which "disruptive activities" have been cited since October. The letters announce first -- or in one case, second -- strikes against the owners. A third strike could get the property listed as disruptive, and subject the owner to invoices for future public safety calls.

"I think it represents a good start and something that clearly shows that we're serious about taking back our neighborhoods," Mayor Luke Ravenstahl said yesterday. "Forceful action was necessary, and I think that's what we're trying to implement."

Some of the subject property owners weren't happy.

"Are we big brother now?" asked Charles Yanders, a landlord who was sent a letter about a liquor violation at his building at 714 Cedar Ave., in East Allegheny. "With that particular building, we've had problems with people who don't even live there damaging the locks, being in the building, being in the hallways. ... You can have people actually vandalizing your property, and if you call the police about people who don't even live there, they're going to log that against you?"

Each letter included an appeal form, and Mr. Yanders said he would be filling one out. Appeals go to a new five-member panel.

The letters mark the city's first use of an ordinance passed in late 2007 that, along with ongoing registration of rental housing, is meant to give public safety officials a better handle on neighborhood quality of life. The city now tracks the locations of a slew of summonses, citations and arrests, and aide Maria Bethel screens them and begins the enforcement process. If the city sees three disruptive incidents in 60 days, the property owner can be told to submit an abatement plan, or get a bill the next time police, firefighters, building inspectors or animal control officers have to come around.

The first round of letters will be followed by weekly batches, said Public Safety Director Michael Huss.

By ZIP code, the largest number of letters -- seven -- are related to disruptions in 15204, which includes Sheraden, Esplen, Chartiers City and Windgap. The runner-up ZIP code is 15210, which includes Carrick and the Hilltop neighborhoods above South Side, with five disruptive acts.

Fourteen of the 39 letters cited drug, alcohol or paraphernalia-related violations, and three listed gun crimes.

Surprises in the first salvo include the prevalence of loose dog complaints -- they make up 18 of the 39 disruptive acts -- and the number of apparently owner-occupied properties getting the warning.

Dog violations are prevalent because they're easy to prove, said Public Safety Director Michael Huss. "Once we get that dog and someone shows up to get that dog, then of course it's very clear, we know who it belongs to, and a citation is issued," he said.

Drug cases, by contrast, involve a lengthier process that would delay the sending of a disruptive property action.

Kathleen Wrigley, the subject of a city letter for the Nov. 14 escape of her dog from her Greenfield Avenue home, called the city's warning to her "ridiculous" and said the city should be focusing its efforts elsewhere.

"We do have a contained yard for her. She just likes to run around the block," she said. "There's enough disruption that goes on in our neighborhood, such as drugs, and people not paying attention to the traffic signs."

Ben Ferris, though, had no problem with getting a letter triggered by the December escape of his St. Bernard, Bernie, from his Brookline yard.

"I put a lock on my gate now," he said. "Three times and you're out? That seems fair to me."

The only person to get a second strike was Susanna Liberty, a South Side Slopes resident, whose dogs got loose twice, according to the city letters.

Though the disruptive properties ordinance has been viewed in large measure as a way of getting at absentee landlords, more than half of the properties involved in the initial letters are apparently owner-occupied.

"At first glance, I was surprised by it as well," said Mr. Ravenstahl. "Why that is, I'm not necessarily sure, but if you're in violation, you're in violation, if you're not, you're not."

Landlord groups have criticized city government for measures including the disruptive properties ordinance and a new $12-per-unit fee. Some are considering lawsuits to stop the measures.

"Those numbers dispel that feeling of landlords being targeted," the mayor said. "Our goal is to clean up the city. Our goal is to have good quality neighborhoods."


Rich Lord can be reached at rlord@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1542.


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