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January 11, 2007

Pitt, city work on Oakland housing issues

Pitt is considering a number of new options to help city officials crack down on landlord abuses in student-laden south and central Oakland. The University continues to work with city officials to improve conditions in neighboring residential areas, which long have suffered from landlord abuses, building code violations and other problems including two fatalities from fires in the last six months.

“We’d like to sustain the momentum that was launched last summer by working with the city to address these problems,” said John Wilds, assistant vice chancellor of Community and Governmental Relations. He said Pitt officials have been meeting regularly with personnel at the city’s Bureau of Building Inspection and the mayor’s office to coordinate efforts.

Also, Pitt continues to pay half the salary ($24,300) of the building inspector assigned to Oakland, Wilds noted.

Among the new initiatives are:

• Revamping Pitt’s Housing Resource Center’s web site and strengthening the center’s marketing to inform the University community of renters’ rights and responsibilities.

Wilds said, “A committee has been formed to evaluate the entire center and provide more comprehensive and better-publicized services.”

According to Eli Shorak, associate vice chancellor for business, the Housing Resource Center will be stepping up its marketing efforts with new promotional materials. “We believe quality and consistency of information to all students is very important,” Shorak said. “In addition, we will be coordinating with areas such as international studies and graduate departments to assist them with housing opportunities for their specific group of students.”

• Creating an online forum for students to share their experiences with landlords, something that has been successful at other universities, Shorak said.

“We would like to invite the landlords to participate by asking them to submit information on their available properties — features, cost, etc. — with the understanding that along with this information will be survey information from students who have lived in these apartment units,” he said.

“If they are truly good landlords, they should be happy to have an additional means to market their properties and also be happy with student reaction.”

• Expanding the law school’s Community Economic Development Clinic, which trains law students in business and real estate law, to include some housing code enforcement services, including pursuing anti-blight legislation and helping to locate absentee landlords. But a proposal to offer free legal representation in tenant-landlord disputes through the clinic has been tabled.

“First things first,” Wilds said. “We want to set up the code enforcement [service], working with the City Solicitor’s Office, before we involve the clinic in [landlord disputes].” He noted that Student Affairs provides legal advice to students with landlord issues.

Daniel Friedson, supervising attorney at the law school’s Community Economic Development Clinic, said a pilot program to train Pitt law students in code enforcement services is being launched to aid in the effort. “We picked two students out of seven applicants to take a 2-credit independent study course that I am directing,” Friedson said. “Depending on how it goes, we hope to expand this to the eight-student model of our clinic.”

Friedson said that he’s also interested in exploring the feasibility of establishing systematic apartment inspections in the neighborhoods.

• Planning another “walk-through” in the Oakland area similar to the August “redd up” tour that Chancellor Mark Nordenberg and then-Deputy Mayor Yarone Zober took of south and central Oakland. That walk-through, designed as a quick assessment of dilapidated housing conditions, trash, graffiti and other problems endemic to the local neighborhoods, prompted the city to send 14 building inspectors who subsequently cited 270 properties for code violations.

(See Aug. 31 University Times.)

According to Ron Graziano, chief of the Bureau of Building Inspections, the inspectors’ August sweep prompted a rash of landlord action in the area. He said 196 of the 270 violations issued in August have been resolved, that is, have passed follow-up inspections, and 27 are in the process of being resolved.

An additional 37 violations were handed over to the city’s Housing Court for legal action against landlords, he said.

Landlords for 10 other properties still are being sought.

“When we do it again in the spring, maybe we’ll do it over three to five days,” Graziano said this week. “We also might want to look at some other parts of Oakland. For us, the timing is important. We think doing inspections around the [typical] move-in dates is the best thing to do, and we’re working to coordinate that with the University.”

In addition, the building inspector who previously split time between Oakland’s 4th Ward and certain South Side neighborhoods will begin working full-time in Oakland later this month, Graziano said.

“The only thing we were a little disappointed in was the number of students who let us in into their residences was a little low. We can’t enter residences without the tenant’s permission. We would hope when we do this again, which will probably be near the move-out and move-in dates [at the end of the spring term], that more students would give us permission to inspect inside their areas.”

—Peter Hart

Filed under: Feature,Volume 39 Issue 9

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