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Proposed housing code changes don’t do enough for Allegheny County tenants, advocates say

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
The proposed changes will be the first time the code is set to be updated in more than 25 years, and health department officials say it will bring the agency in line with standards in other codes and improve safety.

Allegheny County’s Board of Health is set to vote Wednesday on proposed changes to Article VI — the main county code provision that governs the work of the Health Department in regulating housing.

The proposed changes will be the first time the code is set to be updated in more than 25 years, and health department officials say it will bring the agency in line with standards in other codes and improve safety.

The updates seem like common-sense modifications to the code, said Ed Benz, president of the Pittsburgh-based Active Community Real Estate Entrepreneurs, which represents individual landlords who own anywhere from a couple of units to more than 200 properties.

But local housing advocates have said any overhaul of the code should include more tenant-focused protections: things like providing tenant protections against retaliation when they file a complaint with the health department, making it easier for tenants to escrow rent if they are living in unsafe conditions, and more broadly, shifting from a reactive, complaint-driven system to a more proactive universal rental inspection system.

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Additionally, housing and tenant advocate groups have said the department should create a Housing Advisory Committee, similar to its Air Quality Advisory and Food Safety Advisory committees to deal with these concerns in an ongoing way.

None of those changes are being considered on Wednesday.

“We can't afford to wait another 25 years or so before the county addresses the fundamental problems with Article VI of the health code,” said Bob Damewood, staff attorney in the Pittsburgh office of Regional Housing Legal Services.

But additional regulations will create more costs and lead to higher rents, said Benz, who said he doesn’t see a need for a housing advisory committee or changes to the inspection system.

“You’re assuming we’re crooks and you have to police us like we’re criminals, and we’re not,” he said.

Health Department officials have said the changes will bring its code up to standards found elsewhere. They’ve also said the updates will make the code more readable and easy to understand for landlords and tenants, as well as reduce injury risks, according to a department summary. The department did not make any officials available to WESA to answer questions about the proposal.

Advocates like Damewood and others say they don’t object to the proposed changes the Department has put forth, but say they’re too narrowly focused and should be paired with further action on broader problems.

“It's the first step of many in our eyes,” said Michelle Naccarati-Chapkis, executive director of Women for a Healthy Environment. Her group often works with tenants dealing with serious mold problems, as well as lead poisoning.

“We know that there's a direct correlation between the health of a home… and short-term and long-term health outcomes for those who occupy that space,” she said.

A 2021 investigation by PublicSource and WESA questioned the effectiveness of Article VI. It examined more than 8,700 health complaints over several years. While many situations did resolve themselves, the news organizations found the department verified that the fixes were made in roughly two in every five cases, and assessed just nine penalties. The news organizations also found the rent escrow program is rarely used: from 2017 through 2020, the health department sent out 312 letters to tenants advising them of the program; just eight of those tenants opened accounts.

The Health Department has been without a permanent director for more than a year since its former director accepted a state-level job

Allegheny County Executive Sara Innamorato, who took office in January, said in an interview with City Cast Pittsburgh last week that the county has not started interviewing for the top health job but has “a strong pool of candidates that are sourced nationally.”

The Board of Health meets at 12:30 p.m. Wednesday in the Gold Room at the Allegheny County Courthouse. Meetings are live-streamed on the department’s Facebook page

Kate Giammarise focuses her reporting on poverty, social services and affordable housing. Before joining WESA, she covered those topics for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for nearly five years; prior to that, she spent several years in the paper’s Harrisburg bureau covering the legislature, governor and state government. She can be reached at or 412-697-2953.
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.