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February 19, 2009

Pitt may face city rental permit fee for dorms

Pitt continues to be counted among property owners subject to an April 1 deadline to pay a $12-per-unit residential housing rental permit fee and provide city government with the names and phone numbers of residents residing in its housing units.

Pittsburgh City Council last week tabled a proposed amendment that would exempt dormitories from the city’s rental housing permit requirements. Council member Tonya D. Payne, who proposed the amendment then last week moved to table it, did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

The ordinance requires property owners to register residential rental units so city officials can verify compliance with safety and other codes. It exempts hotels, motels and bed and breakfasts from the permit requirements, but defines a rental unit as “any dwelling unit or residential structure containing sleeping units” rented or leased to tenants. It does not specifically mention dormitories.

Paul A. Supowitz, Pitt’s vice chancellor for Governmental Relations and associate general counsel, said that when the ordinance was enacted in December 2007, city council members made it clear that it was not their intent to include dormitories. “We took them at face value,” Supowitz said, noting that the city’s Bureau of Building Inspection only recently informed the University that it is considered subject to the ordinance.

While the city maintains that safety issues are behind its rationale that dorms are included, Supowitz said the reason for the legislation doesn’t apply to Pitt: “We’ve never to my knowledge had a student complain that University housing is substandard.”

City officials were not available immediately to comment in detail on the city’s position.

Supowitz further argued that the ordinance’s references to leased space, dwelling units (defined as being designed for residential occupancy and having cooking and sanitary facilities) and rental units, do not apply to dormitories.

“We do not have a lease with our students,” he said, adding that the student housing contract is dependent on the occupant’s status as a Pitt student — more akin, Supowitz said, to people residing in nursing homes, long-term care units or inpatient treatment facilities where housing is based on the occupant’s status. Supowitz said Pitt’s student housing contract states that it doesn’t create a landlord-tenant relationship between the University and the resident student.

John Fedele, associate director of News, said Pitt has 3,551 dormitory units on the Pittsburgh campus as well as 308 apartment units.

Supowitz said the University does not dispute that the ordinance applies to the apartment units and that Pitt intends to comply. That will cost nearly $3,700. Including dorm units would add more than $42,600 to the bill.

Although the rental permit requirement has been the main focus, Supowitz said there is “potential concern” with regard to other city ordinances that make property owners responsible for disruptive properties.

Under the city code, a unit can be labeled disruptive if three separate citations or summonses are issued or arrests for disruptive activity are made (involving the same rental unit for properties with more than six units) within a 60-day period.

The property owner could be billed for the costs of administrative and law enforcement actions in response to any further disruptive activity in the unit within six months.

In addition, Supowitz said, there are clear issues under the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) with regard to the information the city wants Pitt to release on the student residents.

He would not rule out legal action, but said the University would prefer to resolve the issue with a common-sense approach. While the April 1 deadline remains weeks away, “we’re exploring the options we have,” he said.

— Kimberly K. Barlow

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