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Politics & Government
Building Innovation is a collection of stories by 90.5 fm WESA reporters about the Pittsburgh region focusing on efficient government operation, infrastructure and transportation, innovative practices, energy and environment and neighborhoods and community.

Councilwoman: Pittsburgh’s Rental Registry Might Create The Problem It's Trying To Solve

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It’s become something of a routine in Pittsburgh City Council’s weekly committee meetings: when legislation to create a registry of rental properties in the city comes up for discussion, Public Safety Chair Councilman Daniel Lavelle asks that the bill be held for another week — or two, or three.

A May 2015 investigation into why the bill wasn’t moving forward in council garnered few solid answers, but it now appears that Mayor Bill Peduto’s administration is prepared to revive the long-dormant proposal.

City council on Tuesday held an informational post-agenda meeting with members of the administration to discuss the newly revamped legislation.

The rule would require all of the city’s approximately 40,000 rental properties to be registered with the city; owners would pay a $65 annual fee per unit. The Department of Permits, Licenses and Inspections would inspect each unit at least once every three years. Exempt properties would include hotels and motels, bed and breakfasts, public housing developments, rehabilitation facilities, medical care facilities, dormitories and owner-occupied units.

The proposal has so far raised the ire of some local landlords, many of whom crowded council chambers during a public hearing last December.

Council Budget Director Bill Urbanic said the rental property registry is needed to address one of the most common causes of complaints to City Council offices.

“You have potholes, you have snow removal and then you have property complaints,” he said. “Property complaints were the ones that couldn’t get resolved very readily.”

Alex Pazuchanics, policy coordinator in the mayor’s office, said the bill is meant to resolve those concerns, not to be combative.

“The goal here is not to write violations,” said PLI Director Maura Kennedy. “The goal here is to improve the standard of housing in the City of Pittsburgh. We want to make sure that every rental unit is safe.”

In order to do that, said Kennedy, the city needs to know who owns every rental property and how to get in touch with them. Right now, they just don’t have that information, which makes it hard to hold absentee landlords and large rental property companies accountable.

But Councilwoman Deb Gross is concerned that, by imposing certain requirements on landlords, the city may be creating the problem it is trying to solve.

She said out-of-town real estate speculators are literally knocking on doors in Lawrenceville asking residents if they will sell their homes. She said if the rental registry requirement and subsequent repairs become too burdensome, people might throw up their hands and take the offer.

“The ideal is great. We know where everybody is, we can hold them accountable and we have buildings that are up to code and everybody’s safe,” she said. “But the reality is, on the ground, in our neighborhoods, we have a much more complex set of systems between blight, local and absentee landlords, affordability, safety and local equity.”

Gross said she supports the legislation but wants to see it rolled out cautiously and in a way that holds the hands of small landlords and perhaps includes a grace period for registration and repairs. As the national press continues to fawn over Pittsburgh, Gross wants to make sure that property wealth stays in the city.

The bill is scheduled to come up for discussion in council’s committee meeting next week. Once approved, the ordinance would take effect six months after PLI publishes the requirements for landlords on its website. There is no timetable for how quickly that information has to be published.

Updates to PLI's web presence and office strategy are also ongoing. New features would allow online registration and licensing, beefing up training and hiring more inspectors. Peduto asked city council to approve an additional three building inspectors for PLI in his 2016 budget proposal.