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Allegheny County Board of Health punts on community housing committee to advise on rental market

Blue, red, orange, yellow and teal houses next to each other with cars in front.
Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
These are the first updates to the rental housing code to be approved by the health board since 1997.

While the changes to rental regulations that were approved by the Allegheny County Board of Health on Wednesday were not contentious, the meeting previewed the possibility of larger, more controversial reforms.

These are the first updates to the rental housing code to be approved by the health board since 1997. According to 2021 Census data cited by the health department, Allegheny County has more than 360,000 renters. Department staff say the intent was to align the county's regulations with industry standards and clarify the responsibilities of landlords and tenants.

However, the health board held off on creating a Housing Advisory Board, which advocates say would give tenants more input in the regulation and enforcement of the rental market.

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Health department staff and the board started discussing updates to the code last spring and have had time to take more decisive action, said Kevin Quisenberry, the litigation director for the Community Justice Project, which is part of the Pennsylvania Legal Aid Network.

Quisenberry works with low-income individuals on housing issues, including those involving safety and habitability. He said a housing advisory committee would be an invaluable partner "in transforming the housing and community environment program over time to a more proactive system that better protects public health."

While some on the board are open to creating such a committee, health department staff caution that setting one up requires input from multiple stakeholders across county government, as housing falls under the purview of various departments. However, the health department's housing program manager, Tim Murphy, said there may be more substantial changes in the coming months and years.

"We have a team right now who's very committed to change and updating this program. We're really excited about where we can take this," said Murphy. "I fully see this as a first step towards that goal."

There were also updates to safety standards, such as requiring entrance doors to have deadbolts and carbon monoxide detectors to be installed on every floor of properties that have a higher risk of CO exposure — these include dwellings with gas-burning appliances, attached garages, and fireplaces. According to Murphy, 11 people in Allegheny County died between 2016 and 2020 due to carbon monoxide exposure.

Earlier this week, Ed Benz, president of the Pittsburgh-based landlord group Active Community Real Estate Entrepreneurs, told WESA that the code revisions were common-sense updates. But he opposes anything more aggressive, including the creation of a housing advisory board.

"Based on my experience with other advisory committees, it's typically the people who have an ax to grind. It adds a layer of bureaucracy," said Benz, who owns nearly 100 units.

Any future regulatory changes will be shaped by the health department's new director. The position has been helmed by an interim director for 14 months — former County Executive Rich Fitzgerald chose to leave the role vacant during his final year in office.

Board of Health member Edith Shapira said during the Wednesday meeting that a hiring committee will soon begin reviewing applications and scheduling interviews for a new director, which comes with a salary of $275,000.

Shapira said she hopes the board and the new county executive, Sara Innamorato, will discuss finalists this spring and make a hire shortly after that. Affordable housing was a key component of Innamorato's campaign.

Kate Giammarise contributed to this story.

Sarah Boden covers health and science for 90.5 WESA. Before coming to Pittsburgh in November 2017, she was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio. As a contributor to the NPR-Kaiser Health News Member Station Reporting Project on Health Care in the States, Sarah's print and audio reporting frequently appears on NPR and KFF Health News.