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September 14, 2006

Housing Resource Center changes urged

In light of problems that plague off-campus student housing in Oakland, do the services provided by the University’s Housing Resource Center (HRC) need to be expanded?

The Senate community relations committee (CRC) thinks so. The committee endorsed the recommendations presented this week in a white paper prepared by the Oakland Planning and Development Corp. (OPDC). Committee members agreed to push for a new emphasis on marketing as well as updating and expanding resources at HRC.

“Actually, the University is already looking into rejuvenating the Housing Resource Center, which has lost some momentum in the last year or so,” said John Wilds, assistant vice chancellor for Community and Governmental Relations and a chancellor’s liaison to CRC. The center currently is without a director, he noted.

A group headed by Eli Shorak, associate vice chancellor for Business, is evaluating the center’s services, partly as a result of the OPDC white paper recommendations that it reviewed this summer, and partly based on recommendations from Pitt’s Community Outreach Partnership Center, Wilds said.

The Housing Resource Center, which is a central source open to members of the Pitt community for information regarding local rental properties, may be moved both physically and administratively. One of the OPDC recommendations is to relocate the office more centrally and more visibly in the William Pitt Union or Sennott Square. Currently, the center is at 127 N. Bellefield Ave., under the direction of the Office of Property Management, and that may change, too, Wilds said.

“There are some issues to rectify, including staffing issues. The HRC web site is buried in Panther Central and we need to improve the access to it,” by making it a more readily accessible web link, he said. “We’re trying to get the Student Government Board and other student organizations — because this is primarily a student service — more active in spreading the word about the HRC services.”

Wilds added that marketing efforts must be consistent and sustained as the student population undergoes its normal turnover.

Shorak’s evaluation group also is talking with Pitt law school officials about setting up legal services for Pitt community members who live in Oakland, he said.

OPDC’s Kelly Hoffman, a housing specialist, and Laura Halula, a community organizer, summarized their findings at the CRC meeting. “While the HRC’s web site is extensive, with information on apartments and landlords and realtors, roommates, rental tips, insurance, we’re not sure how up-to-date the information is, such as the listing of apartments that have passed inspections,” Hoffman said.

OPDC has been providing many of the services that should be under HRC’s purview, she said, such as educating students on tenants’ rights, answering tenants’ complaints and distributing informational brochures through Pitt’s Freshman Studies courses. OPDC, as a non-profit, lacks the resources of the University and favors a partnering role with HRC and Pitt, Hoffman said.

OPDC also is administering an ongoing off-campus student housing survey.

Halula said, “There’s a place on the survey for comments on individual landlords and apartments which we forward to the Student Government Board for them to share with their fellow students and administrators.”

OPDC also benchmarked HRC services against similar offices at other urban universities, including Penn, Boston College, Ohio State, Case Western and the University of Kentucky. Some of these institutions have employee-assisted housing plans available for faculty and staff, Halula noted, while Pitt does not. HRC should expand its services to target faculty and staff housing needs, she recommended.

Other services offered elsewhere but not at HRC include a bulletin board for buying and selling furniture and household items; a message board for students to recount their off-campus housing experiences; roommate listings that are updated weekly; legal advice to renters on leases, security deposits and repairs, and information for potential home buyers, Halula said.

“OPDC also works with the Office of International Services, which the HRC used to work with, but recently stopped,” Hoffman said. From OPDC’s contact with OIS, some housing issues have emerged. “We know there is a lack of short-term housing for international students who arrive on campus [prior] to them getting permanent housing. We try to identify people who are willing to host a student for a week or two, and we would like to see a hostel established in Oakland. The HRC could compile a list of students living off-campus who would be willing to let international students stay with them temporarily.”

HRC should put stronger support in place for international students who are particularly vulnerable to price-gouging and discrimination by landlords, Hoffman added.

Other OPDC recommendations include:

• Setting up informational tables at various Pitt-sponsored events.

• Initiating student mailings with information on HRC.

• Partnering with Student Affairs and student organizations to distribute off-campus housing information.

• Partnering with Pitt units to host homebuyer workshops.

• Marketing affordable new housing in the Pittsburgh area.

• Promoting the benefits to community development of increasing the number of Pitt employees who rent or own houses near campus.

• Pursuing opportunities to establish an employee-assisted housing program.

• Expanding informational services to include planning for an off-campus move.

• Providing direct web links to the city’s inspection officials.

• Developing a temporary housing database.

• Offering a videotaping service on move-in and move-out days to document conditions and thus safeguard tenants’ security deposits.

• Holding regular housing and roommate-matching fairs.

Hoffman said, “The HRC needs to broaden their focus, do more marketing and let the University community know that the HRC exists to serve their needs. Furthermore, the HRC needs to re-evaluate their current techniques, programs and staff to determine how they can more adequately fulfill their mission of helping students, faculty and staff find housing in Oakland and the surrounding areas.”

These improvements, Hoffman said, would create better-informed students armed with knowledge to prevent potential landlord-tenant problems, strengthen town-and-gown relations, improve substandard living conditions and contribute to neighborhood stabilization.

CRC committee chair Wesley Rohrer said, “There are two kinds of issues with off-campus housing. One is esthetics of the neighborhood, cleanliness and so forth. The other, more important concern is safety. What can the HRC or the University do to address that?”

Wilds said that ensuring safety is complicated by a number of factors out of Pitt’s control, including that the municipal housing court, which formerly heard housing complaint cases, has been disbanded for fiscal reasons. “We now have a rotating magistrate system to hear these cases,” he said. “What we would like to see is someone who is there all the time so that there will be consistent code enforcement.”

While the University has paid half the salary of a building inspector focused on Oakland, Wilds said, that inspector’s time is filled mostly doing new construction and commercial property inspections. He added that building inspectors are hampered by laws requiring permission to enter a rental property. “They have to be invited in. A lot of landlords and a lot of tenants are reluctant to grant access,” Wilds said.

The CRC also agreed to support an effort proposed by Ivy Ero, program director of educational programs at the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank.

Ero asked for recommendations on which Pitt units would be open to informational sessions on the importance of feeding the area’s hungry in an era of dwindling resources. She wants to speak especially to future educators, to make them aware of signs that a student is underfed.

CRC members suggested certain possible partners, including the Office of Child Development, the early childhood education department, the health and physical activities department, and departments in the schools of medicine, nursing and public health.

Also recommended was holding a Staff Association Council assembly on issues facing the food bank.

—Peter Hart

Filed under: Feature,Volume 39 Issue 2

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