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More Pittsburgh households now rent than own their homes, and landlords control a growing share of the housing market countywide. COVID-19 is testing the health of this market, bringing eviction curbs, rent relief and a revived tenants’ rights movement. PublicSource and WESA are exploring these changes and examining the governmental and civic responses to the emergence of Tenant Cities.

Unpaid housing health fines leave some Allegheny County tenants cold

Orwig_PublicSource_2021_PatriciaLaChoppa-8.jpeg
Kaycee Orwig
/
PublicSource
Patricia LaChoppa sits on the front porch of the duplex she rents in McKeesport. While the Allegheny County Health Department has imposed $15,500 in penalties on her landlord, she continues to live without heat.

Unhealthy housing rarely results in penalties from the Allegheny County Health Department, and even when it does, it collects just one in five fines.

Records obtained from the department by PublicSource and WESA show that since 2017, an annual average of 1,900 complaints of unhealthy housing typically result in roughly 3,000 inspections, some of which are repeat examinations when fixes aren’t made promptly. Landlords and other property owners who still don’t address serious health violations after repeat inspections ultimately face only fines that they can ignore with relative impunity.

Besides levying fines, the department can bring summary or misdemeanor charges against housing health scofflaws, but it has not done so in recent years. It invites some tenants to put rent payments in escrow until health violations are fixed, but few pursue that option. In a county in which nearly two out of five households now rent, that practice leaves some tenants with little recourse as they face winter with inadequate heat, contend with water or sewage problems, or seek to rid their dwellings of lead or rat infestations.

“If the enforcement provisions are lacking or not being adhered to, it's frankly sending a message to landlords that they can skirt the system and not invest in a way that is necessary to protect public health,” said Michelle Naccarati-Chapkis, executive director of Women for a Healthy Environment. Elected last month to Allegheny County Council as a representative for eastern suburbs from Plum to Swissvale, she advocates a full review of the county’s housing health rules.

The department’s fines most often target landlords, though homeowners and owners of vacant property are sometimes penalized when the conditions of their buildings threaten the health of neighbors.

“The question becomes: Is the system inherently broken?” asked Robert Moncavage, a landlord who is also president of the Realtors Association of Metropolitan Pittsburgh, when presented with the enforcement data. “A fine doesn’t fix anything. ... Given the 20% collection rate, is it even effective? Clearly, it’s not disincentivizing the bad actors.”

Health department spokesman Christopher Togneri responded that the department anticipates new penalty procedures next year and may publicize information on landlords with high fines, so that renters can be better informed and egregious offenders can be effectively targeted.

A few of the officials who oversee the department pledged to push for change.

“Obviously there’s so much more that can be done that’s not being done,” said Liv Bennett, who sits on Allegheny County Council’s Health and Human Services Committee. “And who is suffering? The tenants.”

Case 1: A Wilkinsburg duplex

After opening this case in October 2017, the department’s fourth inspection, in February 2018, indicated that the landlord still had not repaired the furnace. Indoor temperatures ranged from 57 to 61 degrees, and the inspector reported no hot water, weak flooring and ceilings, holes in the wall and missing handrails. In violation of county regulations, the landlord moved in new tenants without addressing old violations. The county filed a $2,500 judgment against the landlord in 2019, but it remains unpaid. The landlord, based in Penn Hills, still owns the property.

The case above isn’t typical, but it’s far from unique.

From 2017 through early Aug. 11 of this year, the department logged 8,765 housing-related health complaints. The most serious complaints involved:

  • no heat — 723 complaints
  • no water — 327
  • other utility terminations — 24
  • sewage problems — 526
  • rats — 120.

The vast majority of cases resolve without any punitive action. “Inspectors seek to fix problems and ensure safe and comfortable living conditions for tenants,” wrote Togneri.

Data provided by the department on 1,660 housing complaints from March 2020 to March 2021 indicates that most resolved without an inspection, either because the owner corrected the problem or the tenant wasn’t responsive to follow-up or moved out.

Case 2: A Carrick rental house

A July 2019 inspection found lead-based paint hazards, and by the fifth inspection, in October, the problem wasn’t addressed. The department fined the Georgia-based landlord $2,500. Court records show the judgment remains unpaid and the landlord still owns the property.

The department’s powers to punish come from the county’s 25-year-old Houses and Community Environment regulation, known as Article VI of the Health Department rules and regulations, plus the state’s 1960s-era City Rent Withholding Act. They create four enforcement options.

Criminal charges

The county can bring summary or misdemeanor charges that can result in fines or even imprisonment. It has not exercised that option in recent years.

Asked why the department isn’t using this option, Togneri wrote that the department has “a record of securing compliance, which is only achievable via cooperation with tenants and landlords.”

Order tenants to vacate

The department can also issue an order to vacate a premises. “For instance, in a case where, say, somebody is in their own home and they don't have water and they don't have heat, we actually used to padlock those homes and have those people removed,” said Lori Horowitz, manager of the department’s Housing and Community Environment Program, in a May interview. “But it wasn't doing anybody any good,” she added, and that option hasn’t been used in years.

Togneri declined a WESA and PublicSource request for another interview with Horowitz for this story.

Rent withholding

When tenants in any of the county’s four cities (Pittsburgh, McKeesport, Clairton and Duquesne) face particularly unhealthy conditions, inspectors can declare their units unfit for human habitation. The inspector then invites the tenant to pay rent into an escrow account administered by the department. From 2017 through 2020, the department sent out 312 letters to tenants advising them of the program. Just eight of those tenants opened accounts.

Tenants get word of the rent escrow option via a one-page letter with eight bullet points and an invitation to call the inspector. Bennett said that procedure may put too much onus on tenants who are already under stress. “When you’re in a place that is uninhabitable,” she said, “you already feel like you’re fighting an uphill battle.”

Civil penalties

The department can levy fines, usually of $2,500. In response to a Right-to-Know Act request from PublicSource and WESA, the department provided basic information on 122 fines that it pursued since 2017.

Fines, Togneri wrote, are applied to “the most non-compliant of landlords.”

Not all fines targeted landlords. Sometimes the department went after businesses, vacant property owners or owner-occupants whose conditions vexed neighbors.

The department’s records and related court filings show penalties of $364,625 assessed on the 122 cases, but collections of just $51,560 on 25 of them.

“At face value, it seems low,” said Dr. Donald Burke, a county Board of Health member who is also dean emeritus of the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public Health. He wants the department to review what it’s doing now, get data on housing health enforcement in other jurisdictions and consider how it might better achieve the goal of safe and livable housing.

“It’s an important function of the Health Department,” Burke said. “The environmental factors that are found in the housing inspections that deal with air quality, water quality [and] the social environment are all important determinants of health.”

Case 3: A Penn Hills rental house

Starting in late 2020, tenants were exposed to raw sewage backing up into a sink. By the fourth inspection, in April 2021, the problem remained. The department levied a $2,500 fine, and court records show the judgment is unpaid. The Brentwood-based landlord still owns the property.

The 122 penalty cases include eight in which payment was made without court action. In 94 of the other cases the department filed court judgments documenting the debts. When property owners don’t pay judgments, Pennsylvania law creates a multi-step collection process that can lead to garnishment of bank accounts and sheriff’s sale of confiscated real estate, but the department has not gone that route, according to Togneri.

Landlords paid judgments more often than other violators, but fewer than 1 in 5 judgments have been paid.

Togneri wrote that if the fine isn’t paid, the department can collect on the judgment if the owner attempts to sell the property, which it has done on two cases so far this year.

Case 4: A Lincoln-Lemington-Belmar rental house

An inspector first visited in August 2016. By the fifth inspection, in March 2017, the furnace was still disconnected, and a gas space heater created a carbon monoxide hazard. The landlord had also violated the regulations by accepting new tenants without fixing violations. The department levied a $2,500 fine, and the landlord appealed, but a hearing officer upheld the penalty. The judgment remains unpaid, and the Pittsburgh-based landlord still owns the property.

The department has indicated since July that it may strengthen its enforcement tools. In response to questions from WESA and PublicSource, Togneri wrote last month that the department is looking at “new penalty procedures that we believe will allow the [county] to more effectively target the most egregious offenders” and considering “publicly listing landlords who incur the highest fine amounts, so tenants can research and inform themselves about a specific landlord before renting from them.”

PublicSource and WESA have reported since August on housing health enforcement practices used in other jurisdictions, including steadily rising fines, environmental courts, data-driven inspections, cooperative compliance and universal rental registration and inspection.

Bennett suggested an approach in which larger landlords who violate health rules would be hit harder than small ones. She added that the county should get input from housing experts and advocates before making changes.

Outgoing county Controller Chelsa Wagner, who has been elected to the county Court of Common Pleas, noted that the Health Department already publicizes the names of restaurants that fail inspection. The housing market, she suggested, could benefit from the same transparency.

Longer-term, the county should consider electing a health commissioner who would be directly accountable to the public, she said. The department's leader is now confirmed by the nine-member Board of Health, which is appointed by the county executive and confirmed by county council.

Moncavage, the Realtor and landlord, noted that some local governments have the power to directly address problems on private property — mowing an overgrown yard, for example — and billing the owner. He suggested that approach might be applicable to housing health problems.

“If it’s that egregious, if it’s that big of an issue, fix the problem, charge the owner back for it, and maybe issue a fine up on top of that,” he said. If it went unpaid, he said, the department could at least put a lien on the property. Liens can be collected upon a property’s sale.

Naccarati-Chapkis said an enforcement fix could be part of a broader conversation about the county’s housing health rules. Written in 1996, the rules include outdated standards regarding lead exposure, she said. It does not even mention mold or radon, now known to be health hazards.

"We have, in effect, an antiquated code that is really not benefiting the community as a whole,” she said, “and so we are long overdue and past the time of talking about it and now have to put into action a plan for updating and revising the code.”

Rich Lord is PublicSource’s economic development reporter, and can be reached at rich@publicsource.org or on Twitter @richelord.

This story was fact-checked by Linden Markley.