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Council targets nuisance propertiesEdit

Wants law enforced on charging property owners for city servicesEdit

Wednesday, January 10, 2007 by Rich Lord, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette [1]

Tired of neighborhood decay, upset about criminal tenants and absentee landlords, and burnt by a rash of fires, Pittsburgh Council members yesterday called for enforcement of a law on nuisance properties passed almost two years ago but so far ignored.

The ordinance allows the city to bill owners of problem properties for the costs associated with policing and inspecting them.

"This needs to be implemented," Councilman Jim Motznik said. "It needs to be accepted by the administration. Maybe new employees need to be hired" to monitor violations, list nuisance properties, and coordinate enforcement.

"We've internally, since I've become mayor, looked at that," said Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, adding that enforcement may be on the way. "We're just not there yet. It takes cooperation between a number of city agencies."

Mr. Motznik said the ordinance should kick in on properties like 197 Madeline St. in Carrick. City records show that police were called there eight times from August to November, for disorderly conduct, creating disturbances, threats, burglary and harassment by telephone.

"That's news to me," said Richard DiPippa, of Green Tree, who owns the rental property. "As far as me being held responsible for any activities that go on there, I don't know how I could be held responsible for that."

That property was visited yesterday by a building inspector who found piles of junk in the overgrown weeds in the front and back yards, and broken glass and a box spring on the front porch. Mr. DiPippa said he has told his tenant to clean it up.

City records show he's been late with paying city and school taxes on the property, but he said yesterday that he paid them last month.

Police visits don't affect the landlords, said Mr. Motznik. "They don't have to live next to the crap that they own." A building code citation "goes to Housing Court, and they're not penalized enough to get them to clean up their properties."

The ordinance he wants the city to invoke, passed by council and approved by Mayor Tom Murphy in February 2005, allows the city to declare a small rental property a nuisance if it generates three or more citations from the Police Bureau or Bureau of Building Inspection over 60 days. A building with more than five units can be declared a nuisance if there are three or more citations against one apartment, or five citations against the entire building in 60 days.

After that, the city can issue bills based on an as-yet-unwritten schedule of fees for police calls and building inspections. If the owner doesn't pay, the city can attach the debt to the property.

"I think it stinks," said Mr. DiPippa, who owns four rentals.

Mr. Motznik said the ordinance was never implemented by Mr. Murphy and that Mayor Bob O'Connor's plans to enforce it were thwarted by his illness and Sept. 1 death.

Mr. Motznik called for a special council meeting on using the ordinance, likely to occur next month. Other council members joined his call to have the ordinance enforced, though some wondered if there might be legal challenges.

Councilwoman Darlene Harris, who has been taking building inspectors on tours of blight-infested North Side neighborhoods, said, "I want something to actually be able to happen in these communities."

Council President Doug Shields, who represents Hazelwood, scene of a Friday fire that started in a vacant house and devoured 12 houses, said neglect of neighborhood enforcement over a decade is responsible for the problems, and must end.

Some landlords, though, say they're being unfairly tarred by a series of building code enforcement efforts, and procedural changes like Allegheny County Sheriff's Office enforcement of Housing Court warrants.

Giovanni Cimino, a Green Tree landscaper who owns several rental properties in the city, said he was fined $5,000 in Housing Court last week for loose chimney mortar, peeling paint, a missing apartment number and garbage at one property, and tree branches in the yard of another. When he didn't want to pay by credit card, he was taken by deputies to the County Jail, where he was kept for three hours.

"They came down on me like a ton of bricks," he said. "They want to make us all look like we're the scum of the earth."

He said he'll appeal the fines for what he called "very minor" infractions.

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