Hundreds Of Violations, Few Penalties: Allegheny County's health enforcers frequently inspected — But Rarely Fined — Two McKeesport Properties
The Allegheny County Health Department found 347 housing code violations across two troubled McKeesport properties over four years — but only collected one penalty, for $2,250.
The department levied another $5,000 in penalties but did not collect those, instead filing judgments against the owner entities, which are controlled by PNC Bank. Meanwhile, some tenants’ problems — including leaks, infestations and failed heating systems — remained unaddressed for months, even after two or three inspections.
“Whoa," said state Rep. Austin Davis, D-McKeesport, when informed of the numbers of inspections and the fines collected, as he stood outside of one of the properties, Hi View Gardens. “There’s no question that things were missed, for sure.”
The Health Department put considerable time into Hi View and Midtown Plaza, two affordable housing properties that PNC Bank bought in 2018. Since 2017, the department has conducted more than 90 inspections at the two properties, including 83 since PNC took over. The 800 department documents reviewed by PublicSource and WESA include 11 threats of penalties.
That effort, though, often failed to result in prompt improvements for residents. Tenants at Hi View became so fed up with maintenance problems that in May they formed a tenant council and demanded that owners hire a third-party inspector to catalog problems and verify repairs.
McKeesport Mayor Michael Cherepko called the low penalty, following the department’s extensive effort, “kind of ridiculous,” adding that he did not have detailed knowledge of the challenges of health code enforcement.
WESA and PublicSource reported in July that Hi View and Midtown saw a 49% increase in housing health code violations in 2019 and 2020 compared to the prior two years. PNC Bank subsequently pledged “immediate action” to address problems at the properties and plans to pursue federal tax credits to conduct full revamps.
That reporting prompted Allegheny County Councilman Bob Macey to mull potential additions to the current health enforcement toolbox. “I think it’s important for people to step up to the plate and do what we ask them to do,” said Macey, a Democrat whose district includes McKeesport. “If they don’t do it, they need to be held accountable.”
Other counties and cities have mechanisms for enforcing housing quality — from steadily rising fines and environmental courts to data-driven inspections and “cooperative compliance” regimes — that do not appear to exist here.
Allegheny County’s “current procedure is to treat each complaint individually and proceed through our normal procedure,” said Lori Horowitz, the department's operations manager in charge of the Housing and Community Environment Program. That procedure is to inform the property owner of the complaint, inspect if it is not promptly addressed and then send notices of any violations before following up with potential further inspections and sanctions.
She added that the department has begun to research practices in other counties and is working on a "penalty matrix" that could result in different fines. She declined, though, to detail the measures under consideration or to estimate any timetable for implementation. Health Department Director Dr. Debra Bogen is not doing individual interviews during the pandemic, and County Executive Rich Fitzgerald's spokeswoman did not respond to questions.
For the time being, Horowitz said, enforcement remains “on a case-by-case basis.”
‘We’re going to do something about this’
One of the department’s most involved cases at Hi View resulted in some improvements, a threat but no penalty — and an unsatisfied tenant.
Starting in January, the department inspected Octavia Owens' apartment four times.
“I let him walk around in my unit, I told him all the problems, all the damages," Owens, a mother of children ages 5 and 2, said of her interactions with a Health Department inspector. "And he was telling me that, 'Oh, we’re going to do something about this. ... I’m going to get this unit fixed for you, or I’m going to get you to transfer somewhere.'"
The initial inspection revealed nine violations against the owner, including that the apartment was unheated, compelling the tenant to commit her own violation by using a gas stove to keep warm. It took more than two months for the department and Hi View management to verify that the heat was working.
Other violations, including rot and failure to decontaminate a shared area in which there had been a sewer backup, persisted even then. Nonetheless, the department closed its file with an admission that violations remained but a promise of "no further action at this time."
In late July, Owens said she was still living with a sagging ceiling, bad flooring, a broken door and bugs. WESA and PublicSource were unable to inspect the apartment because property manager Preservation Management Inc. [PMI] ordered the reporting team to leave Hi View.
“I don’t feel satisfied" with the Health Department’s work, said Owens. "I’m trying to move out of here. I’m trying to get an apartment, but you know, it’s kind of hard."
No call to PNC
Inspections of Hi View and Midtown represented around 13% of housing health inspections done in McKeesport from 2017 through 2020, according to Horowitz. The complexes, combined, make up around 5% of McKeesport’s rental housing.
Horowitz said she was aware of the concentrations of violations at Hi View and Midtown before PublicSource and WESA brought them to her attention, but declined to detail internal deliberations regarding enforcement.
One of the county’s go-to tools, though, was apparently not employed.
"One of the main things we do is try our best to get a hold of the actual ownership of the property, to speak to them and try and make sure that they're fully aware of what is going on, what we've cited, and what the consequences will be if they don't comply," she said. She did not, however, know of any interaction between the department and PNC in regard to Hi View and Midtown. The department instead wrote letters to and called the property manager, PMI.
Horowitz said that in 48 out of 101 files she reviewed related to the properties, her staff closed its cases because the tenant opted not to pursue their complaint, said the complaint had already been addressed by the property management or failed to coordinate with the inspector. She said that is typical: Around half of the department's cases resolve without an inspection, either because the tenant is unresponsive or the landlord is quick to fix the problem.
Other cases, though, lingered for months.
Of the 58 Health Department cases in Hi View and Midtown that PublicSource and WESA were able to track definitively from beginning to end, 21 were open for two months or more. The lengthiest lasted eight months from the initial report of roaches, leaks and rot until the department closed it when the tenant stopped communicating with the inspector.
A limited enforcement toolbox
The lone case for which the Health Department collected a penalty involved an apartment at Midtown Plaza that it inspected four times from Dec. 18, 2019 through Jan. 30, 2020, finding failed heat and indoor temperatures between 57 and 65 degrees. The department closed that case after it concluded that the tenant had moved out.
Under the county's Houses and Community Environment rules, the department can charge penalties as low as $30 or as high as $1,000 per violation. When a landlord fails to promptly address failed heat during winter, the department sometimes threatens a $2,500 civil penalty plus $250 per additional day that it continues.
The department did not respond to a request for information on the amount of penalties collected countywide for housing health violations.
The department also can order tenants out of a housing unit, but will only use that power in “a pretty extreme situation” when harm to the community could result from continued occupancy, said Horowitz.
The department's other enforcement tool is to allow tenants to pay rent into an escrow account until repairs are completed. Horowitz said that from 2016 through 2020, the department issued 393 letters allowing tenants in Allegheny County to pay into escrow accounts. Only 13 of the tenants actually set up accounts with the county, and none of those were in McKeesport.
Affordability or health ‘a false choice’
The enforcement options available in Allegheny County are common, but some jurisdictions have gone much further.
In Kansas City, Missouri, voters in a 2018 referendum demanded enhanced housing health enforcement. The resulting Healthy Homes Rental Inspection Program resulted in a well-defined flow chart of actions that includes $150 reinspection penalties and the nuclear option: revocation of a landlord’s right to rent.
The Kansas City Health Department doesn't want to punish landlords, but it also doesn't want taxpayers footing the bill for second, third and fourth inspections of the same properties, Deputy Director Naser Jouhari said. The department has collected around $86,500 in reinspection fees in three years, he said.
The department hasn't yet revoked a landlord's permit to rent. "That’s a good thing! That means we’re getting compliance," said Jouhari.
The program hasn't satisfied KC Tenants. "We have a list of about 93 tenants who have tried to get Healthy Homes to support their needs, with no success," said Tara Raghuveer, founding director of that renters rights group. PublicSource and WESA interviewed two Kansas City renters who said that the program was slow to compel repairs to their units.
Some jurisdictions have created special courts to deal with health issues including housing-related problems. Marion County, Indiana (which includes Indianapolis) has had an Environmental Court since 1978.
Franklin County, Ohio (which includes Columbus) also has an Environmental Court, with a judge whose caseload consists entirely of quality of life cases. Using a streamlined process for addressing serious violations, the court can assess $1,000-per-day fines, according to Steve Dunbar, a section chief with the office of the City Attorney.
“Collecting money isn’t the priority. It’s a means to an end,” said Dunbar. “Getting the place fixed, and fixed right, is the priority.”
Philadelphia's Code Enforcement Inspections Unit handles many of the housing issues that fall under the Allegheny County Health Department's purview. That unit is switching from a largely complaint-driven process to one in which a business intelligence unit mines data and drives targeted enforcement efforts. For instance, the unit might opt to inspect common areas in all of the city's high rises if it sees problems there, said its Acting Director Michael Troise.
Another emerging model is called "cooperative compliance," according to Amanda Reddy, executive director of the National Center for Healthy Housing [NCHH], a Maryland-based nonprofit focused on low-income communities.
Cooperative compliance involves transforming the “traditional us-versus-them dynamic” between enforcement agencies and landlords into a relationship of mutual interest in which inspectors may direct property owners to resources that can help them to finance improvements, she said.
When the cooperative approach doesn’t work, “progressive and meaningful” fines for persistent violations can be effective, Reddy said.
Health and safety problems in affordable communities are “not just solvable. I think it’s imperative that we solve them,” Reddy said. “Asking residents to choose between housing that is affordable and housing that is safe is a false choice. We know how to provide both, and we can and we must provide both.”
Into the matrix?
Horowitz said a forthcoming "penalty matrix" might bring fines based on the repetition of violations, their severity and the number of people affected.
She said the county is also researching other enforcement approaches, but declined to name any other counties that might serve as models. “Dr. Bogen is moving toward a more proactive health department,” she said.
Presented with information about enforcement in other jurisdictions, Allegheny County Council's Macey said he liked the idea of charging owners when violations persist after the Health Department repeatedly inspects the same unit.
“If we’re sending people out there more than once and they’re not being listened to, there should be some obligation by the person who is not doing their job to pay for it," Macey said. He said he has asked council's chief of staff to look into the concept.
Any county legislation would likely have to go through one of two GOP-chaired committees.
Sam DeMarco, a Republican elected at-large who chairs the Economic Development and Housing Committee, said that "over-regulation and intervention has caused many of these problems” in the affordable housing market “and continued intervention isn’t necessarily going to solve it.”
He said loosening of land-use regulations might spur the creation of more affordable housing, while federal housing aid directed solely toward property improvements might help to shore up existing subsidized properties.
Cindy Kirk, a Republican who chairs council's Health and Human Services Committee, was out of town and did not respond to questions.
Talor Musil, health policy coordinator for the East Liberty-based nonprofit group Women for a Healthy Environment, said the county’s 25-year-old housing health code is outdated. It doesn't address concerns like mold and moisture, and could do more to prevent households from moving into buildings with lead contamination, she said.
“Updating that regulation,” said Musil, “would be incredibly helpful in equipping the Health Department to act more swiftly and perhaps introduce more progressive fines.”
Rich Lord is PublicSource’s economic development reporter and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @richelord.
Kate Giammarise is a reporter covering the impact of COVID-19 on the economy for WESA and can be reached at email@example.com or 412-697-2953.
PublicSource intern Xiaohan Liu contributed to data analysis and visualization. Point Park University student Nick Tommarello contributed to document processing.
This story was fact-checked by Matt Maielli.
This content was produced with support from the Doris O'Donnell Innovations in Investigative Journalism Fellowship, awarded by the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University in Pittsburgh, PA.