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Hilltop looks to learn from Lawrenceville on handling code enforcement problems


South met east last week, to share information and confer on ways to organize advocacy and improve neighborhood safety, appearance and quality of life.

Representatives from five different South Pittsburgh neighborhood organizations gathered at the Hilltop Alliance headquarters on Brownsville Road, where guest speaker Lauren Byrne related the history, impact and initiatives of Lawrenceville United’s Public Safety Action Team (“LU’s team”).

Hilltop Alliance Executive Director Pat Murphy stated the purpose of the conference was to learn from the efforts and undertakings of LU’s team and decide whether our local communities would like to follow its lead.

Even though Lawrenceville sits on the other side of the river, Ms. Byrne emphasized it shares a lot of common concerns with South Pittsburgh neighborhoods, such as its high number of vacant, neglected or nuisance properties.

Addressing these violations and enforcing the city’s building/property code has been both a challenge and a priority for LU’s team, said Ms. Byrne—and, it was this topic that carried the weight of conversation at Tuesday night’s meeting.

From grassroots beginnings, LU emerged and developed its team, which graduated from being a government-sponsored “weed and seed site” in 2010. According to Ms. Byrne, despite the loss of extra funding available to sponsored sites, LU’s self-sustaining team continued its parent mission to weed out problems and plant the seeds for development in Lawrenceville, which has resulted in an increase in code-compliant properties and a 60 percent decrease in crime since 2002.

To accomplish these things, Ms. Byrne elaborated, LU’s team employs a concerted effort, “convening already existing agencies and partners to focus on the area.”

Some of the agencies the effort calls together include various City of Pittsburgh police departments; the Bureau of Building Inspection; the Allegheny County departments of Human Services, Housing and Public Works; and the Office of the Mayor, from which Liz Style co-chairs LU’s team.

These agencies rally bi-monthly at what Ms. Byrne described as a “highly structured, confidential meeting.” The meeting is not open to the public, she said, because of the sensitive personal data discussed, as well as for the sake of efficiency.

Each meeting has an organized agenda targeting those properties or areas which have the highest level of priority, based upon the number or nature of code violations, as identified primarily by 311 call records and reports from the block watches in Lawrenceville neighborhoods, Ms. Byrne detailed.

The issues surrounding each property, she continued, are identified in advance and discussed with the respective agencies to determine what actions can be taken. Then, at the end of the meeting, community leads and concerning trends are raised in order to get recommendations from the departments on hand.

At the bottom line, summarized Ms. Byrne, the process expedites the code enforcement process by saving the legwork of contacting each agency independently and preventing backtracking and double visits to, from and between the resources.

“It also alleviates some of the tension already on the Bureau of Building Inspection,” said Ms. Byrne, noting BBI has a funneled volume of troublesome properties and the LU’s teamwork helps steady the flow of access.

Ms. Byrne commented, although LU’s team has made great strides, there is still much work to be done, both within the Lawrenceville community and within the protocol of the team itself.

Examples of latter areas of improvement mentioned by Ms. Byrne included developing better ways of measuring and tracking the outcome of team projects, and becoming more proactive rather than reactive, both of which are team goals for 2013.

While outcomes have been difficult to empirically measure, Ms. Style remarked there have been observable differences in the Lawrenceville community, not just with high-profile targeted properties but also with general neighborhood upkeep.

“Residents are seeing that something is being done,” Ms. Style said, “and that has encouraged them to start shaping up on their own.”

Another noticeable difference, as cited by Ms. Byrne, is that owner and landlord letters are sent from the LU and not from vigilante citizens, which is something that not only gives the notifications more clout but also reduces the risk of potential misinformation and/or danger involved when an individual takes matters into his own hands.

After Ms. Byrne outlined where the LU’s team has been and where it is headed, Ms. Murphy opened the table to discussion about what similar things should be done on this side of the river.

Representatives from neighborhood organizations in Carrick/Overbrook, Mt. Oliver City/St. Clair, Knoxville, and Allentown questioned whether a central agency should be created, or whether each neighborhood organization should form its own team.

Also debated was how, if a centralized team were created, its attention should be distributed over time; whether the team would focus on the composite area or on different, discrete neighborhoods each year.

Questions such as these were asked but not answered, giving community representatives a chance to take the topic home to their particular organizations and deliberate on what they’d like to see done next year.


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