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May 18, 2000

Off-campus housing center urged to spread word about its services

A University Senate committee, concerned that students are often victimized by absentee and neglectful landlords in Pitt's neighboring communities, invited two University officials to discuss Pitt's off-campus housing strategy.

Deborah Pozycki, assistant director, Office of Property Management, and Eli Shorak, assistant vice chancellor for Business, fielded questions at last month's Plant Utilization and Planning (PUP) committee meeting.

Pozycki presented information on the University's Housing Resource Center (HRC), the central office for non-residence halls off-campus housing.

"The HRC predominately serves students, visiting faculty and staff relocating to Oakland or the surrounding areas," Pozycki said. "Of course, with the PAT (Port Authority Transit) agreement, our area for potential housing has expanded."

Property Management maintains a number of Pitt-owned off-campus apartment buildings, which HRC lists along with area dwellings owned by non-University landlords.

Pittsburgh on-campus residence halls are handled by Housing Services in Student Affairs, she said.

As part of the housing strategy, Pitt pays 50 percent of the salary for an Oakland building inspector, Pozycki said. The HRC initiated a voluntary inspection program with the city whereby landlords request inspection of their apartments and are issued certificates if the property is deemed in compliance with current city building codes.

Since the program began, Pozycki said, 29 landlords, representing about 350 inspected units, are listed at the HRC, which then promotes them for occupancy by University community members.

She acknowledged that 29 was not a large number and that the voluntary list had not yet influenced many landlords with property not in code compliance.

"By law, we can't post complaint information on the web in the form of a list of bad landlords," Pozycki said. "We work on educating tenants. Five hundred dollars rent for a one-bedroom apartment is much more realistic than what you might see in a classified,if the tenant wants a decent place. Unfortunately, the classifieds are directing students to Oakland with a false sense of reality, advertising apartments with cheaper rates. But, in a sense, you get what you pay for. We try to coordinate tenants' needs and wants with their ability to pay. We have a very well-developed web site that helps in that education."

Pozycki said that the HRC also can advise University community tenants with problem landlords. The HRC acts as liaison between the University and the city's Bureau of Building Inspections (BBI), relaying tenants' complaints and advising tenants of BBI procedures. HRC distributes information about tenants' rights and responsibilities and lease terminology, she said.

But Shorak acknowledged that at times Pitt's hands are tied by city procedures. "Code enforcements have to go through city mechanisms, which are out of the University's control," he said. "But we have a good relationship with the BBI. If we ask them to investigate particular complaints, they typically will."

At the PUP committee's recommendation, Shorak said he would ask the Office of General Counsel what limitations Pitt is under for publicizing data on non-code-compliant properties and landlords.

While praising HRC's overall efforts, PUP members suggested a more proactive role.

Among the suggestions PUP members offered to improve service were to survey students and visiting faculty systematically and make survey results available; to offer more incentive for landlords to volunteer to be assessed for code compliance and more disincentive for those who don't.

PUP committee member Michael Spring pointed out that many prospective tenants, particularly international graduate students, are under pressure to find a place to live in the first two or three days after they arrive in Pittsburgh. "And they often arrive on campus in August or over the holiday break in December when the fewest people are around to help," Spring said.

"That's what the HRC is here for," Pozycki replied. "We also provide this information in the Office of International Services" in the William Pitt Union.

A list of more than an 100 area apartment buildings and complexes is maintained and updated, and includes the name and phone number of the managing real estate company and monthly rental and utility charges. Listed dwellings are mainly in Oakland, Squirrel Hill, Shadyside, Greenfield, Highland Park and East Liberty.

The HRC web site also is linked to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette daily classified section and provides a list of local real estate agencies. Web addresses for related sites, such as regional rental guide publications, transportation and public school information and city maps are included.

Additional information available at the HRC and on its web site are: lists of University apartments; local apartments, including inspected and non-inspected units; an apartment-roommate matching service; a sublet service; apartment complexes and management companies; hotels and short-term housing options; real estate brokers; insurance companies that provide renter's insurance; Pitt parking and transportation information; general and fire safety tips; available storage facilities; a guide to apartment leases, and a 45-question renter's tip sheet.

Pozycki said, "We've had between 3,200 and 4,000 web site hits during the first three months of this year."

According to Shorak, the HRC was established as a part of Pitt's overall housing strategy to provide updated information about safe, high-quality and clean off-campus housing options. He predicted the housing strategy would be more effective as time goes on. "We're hoping to house more students on campus, which, over time, forces the landlords to upgrade through competition," Shorak said.

He said this is especially true with the new garden-style apartment housing the University is offering at Bouquet Gardens and potentially on the Pitt Stadium site.

Shorak said each school could help with the distribution of the housing information by alerting potential tenants to HRC's services.

PUP chair Van Beck Hall said, "Graduate students check in first with the department. That is the place for first contact. I can tell you as a director of graduate studies, I didn't know this information existed, though I can tell it's very useful," Hall said.

Shorak agreed that making the information available to individuals who make first contact with arriving students will help the service.

Senate President Nathan Hershey, who attended the PUP meeting, suggested that the HRC hold semi-annual training sessions for graduate and undergraduate student advisers. "Most advisers I know are concerned with academics and requirements and registering for classes and that sort of thing. If they had this knowledge I would think it would certainly help," Hershey said.

An informational packet, A Renter's Guide to Apartment Living, is available upon request at the HRC office, 127 North Bellefield Ave. HRC's phone number is 624-6998 and its web address is: Computers and phones are available at the office so apartment seekers can begin searches on site, Pozycki said.

–Peter Hart

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