Pitt wants building code enforced for off-campus student housing

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The University of Pittsburgh will ask the city and the O'Connor administration to start placing greater emphasis on building code compliance as it pertains to off-campus student housing, Chancellor Mark Nordenberg said yesterday.

Separately, Mayor Bob O'Connor called code enforcement in Oakland "a major issue of mine" and said his administration was taking steps to improve building inspection results citywide.

Mr. Nordenberg's remarks at a campus news conference came in response to questions about the persistence of rundown housing in parts of Central Oakland, near the university, and a Pitt-city partnership to address the problem that has become confused in its objective.

Under the arrangement reached in 1997 with the administration of Mayor Tom Murphy, Pitt said it began paying half the salary and benefits of a city inspector in hopes of providing safer student housing. But in a June 18 story in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that examined squalid conditions in the neighborhood, Ron Graziano, chief of the city Bureau of Building Inspection, said the inspector's focus, in fact, has been on new construction and issues of crowding and that code compliance was secondary.

During the previous year, code violation notices issued in Oakland went down, from 303 in 2004 to 236 last year, the newspaper reported.

"We really did think when we entered into the arrangement with the city that the understanding was that the inspector ... whose salary we were subsidizing was, in fact, going to be focusing on housing quality and violations," Mr. Nordenberg said. "That certainly was the understanding with which I entered into the arrangement."

"I think that this is something that will be revisited with the city," he said.

Mr. O'Connor said he "would really like [the extra Oakland inspector] to focus on violations, because we want to make sure everyone's safe. When you convert some of those homes into apartments, and you don't have some of the fire escapes safe and entrances [secure], you're running risks."

Pitt's share of the inspector's pay and benefits is $23,000 a year. The city says there is no contract outlining the arrangement or the inspector's duties.

Mr. Nordenberg declined to speculate on the likelihood that Pitt would continue subsidizing the inspector without a shift in focus. He did express confidence, though, that Pitt and the city could reach a "mutually attractive" understanding.

"We have a wonderful relationship with the mayor and this administration. They are, we know, committed to Oakland and its development in a broad range of ways."

Mr. O'Connor acknowledged that the city has had trouble disciplining problem landlords. Housing Court, once a city institution charged with ruling on violations, was transferred into the state court system last year.

The mayor said the city has started sending lawyers to Housing Court, along with its building inspectors, in an effort to expedite punishment of code violators.

Mr. Nordenberg said a push by the university to ultimately add 1,700 on-campus beds is helping, at least indirectly. "The more on-campus housing alternatives that we provide to students, the greater the pressure will be on off-campus landlords to maintain a degree of quality if they are going to attract tenants."

Bill Schackner can be reached at bschackner@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1977. Rich Lord can be reached at rlord@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1542.


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