South Pittsburgh Reporter - Serving South Pittsburgh Since 1939

By Tom Smith
South Pittsburgh Reporter Editor 

Program works to remedy code enforcement problems

Hilltop Alliance based program getting results


Tim Dolan, program manager at the Hilltop Alliance, worked with city officials to have a Knox Avenue property demolished as part of the Property Stabilization Program he manages on the Hilltop. Working with area residents to identify properties with code violations, Mr. Dolan then works with the owners to remediate the problem before city inspectors get involved with possible fines and Housing Court hearings.

Realizing one aspect of a stable neighborhood is well maintained homes and properties, the Hilltop Alliance began a code enforce-ment taskforce to identify problems in the neighborhoods and help homeowners find solutions to those problems.

Based on the Code Enforcement Partnership in Cleveland, the Alliance's taskforce morphed into the current Property Stabilization Program (PSP) in midyear 2012. While the Cleveland program was a joint venture of 19 community development organizations, the PSP works in parts or all of the Alliance's 11 city neighborhoods.

Much of the funding for the program comes from city Community Development Block Grants which limits its scope to certain city neighborhoods.

Administered by Tim Dolan, program manager at the Hilltop Alliance, the PSP acts as intermediate step between recognizing the original problem and having city inspectors get involved with a possible Housing Court hearing.

Local residents identify nuisance properties in their neighborhood and instead of calling 311 or the Bureau of Building Inspection (BBI), they contact Mr. Dolan to help find solutions to remediate the problem. Armed with a camera and a computer, he first visits the property to assess the problem, take photographs and judge if the situation requires the immediate attention of a building inspector.

Problems requiring immediate attention could include structural damage or anything that would pose a safety hazard.

After photographing the problem, the first step for Mr. Dolan is to match up the property utilizing the Allegheny County Real Estate Website and city tax delinquent information, previous 311 reports and building permits issued by BBI. Up until recently, he was also able to use police blotter information from the public safety website also.

Residents can report problem properties in a variety of ways: by attending the monthly meeting of the Property Stabilization Pro-gram held on the first Wednesday of each month at 6:30 p.m. in the Hilltop Alliance offices. An rsvp is required to attend the meeting because generally food is served to those present; they can call or email Mr. Dolan at 412-586-5807 or; or send him a note to the office at 512 Brownsville Road, Pittsburgh, PA 15210.

Anonymous complaints are not accepted.

Currently, there are approximately 190 properties listed in the PSP database. Of the total number, more than 40 have been resolved already, around 60 are still in process of being worked on by Mr. Dolan and the rest were either resolved before he began working on the program at the end of last year or were either minor problems or issues between neighbors.

After receiving a complaint and researching the ownership of the property, the first step is to prepare a letter to the owner letting them know what the Hilltop Alliance is, how the program works, that there is a problem and how the Alliance can help.

Some owners, according to Mr. Dolan, aren't aware there was a problem and are grateful it wasn't turned over to BBI or end up in Housing Court.

The letter also includes information on resources for the homeowner. Depending on their age and financial status, there are pro-grams that could help them with repairs.

It also includes a link to the Allentown/Beltzhoover Housing Market Restoration Strategy which includes a "Housing Repair Toolkit" with information on how to weigh various housing repair options.

If the first letter is ignored, Mr. Dolan attempts to follow up with the owner with either a personal visit or telephone call or if he can't contact them, a second letter with a more urgent message. If all attempts at contacting the property owner to have the situation corrected fail, he then contacts city officials to begin the legal process.

"I think some of the owner-occupied residents, especially if they are elderly, are hesitant to get in contact with me whether that is a sign they're being embarrassed for falling behind or they don't think they have the money to help," Mr. Dolan said. "But there are funds out there through the URA, Habitat for Humanity, Rebuilding Together and a number of other partners in the city that have some funds available out there to help some people at low or no cost to the property owner."

One of the successes of the program is having the city take care of some of its properties.

"Anything that I've brought up has been pretty much been taken care of. They've been pretty good partners," he said.

Although he hasn't had to yet, Mr. Dolan is ready to testify in Housing Court on the condition of the property and his attempts to remediate the situation.

With all or part of the 11 Hilltop neighborhoods eligible to participate, some take more advantage of the opportunity than others.

Mr. Dolan explained about one-third of Carrick is eligible, but there isn't much participation. Not because they aren't interested, but because they already have a system in place through their community council.

The most vocal neighborhoods in the program include Mount Oliver City, St. Clair, Knoxville, some of Allentown and South Side Slopes.

He emphasized the program is meant to help people rather than punish them.

"If someone has been holding on to a vacant property for a long time, not taking care of it (I) help get the ball rolling," he said. "Are they looking to improve it? Are they looking to sell it? We're not a real estate agent, but I do market my data base if someone's willing to sell if we should be approached by a local developer or neighbor who is interested in a vacant lot adjacent to theirs through the city's side lot program."

Most of the properties reported in the program are for trash, overgrowth, littering and dumping.

The Hilltop neighborhoods aren't the only communities interested in improving through a code enforcement strategy he said. In addition, Oakwatch in Oakland also pursues a similar strategy.

Mr. Dolan said a few of the differences between the two programs are that Oakwatch concentrates on a "top ten" list as well as overcrowding in buildings while the PSP will take the "low hanging fruit" because even the small stuff improves the neighborhood.

He has also spoken to the Greenfield Community Association and the Fineview Citizens Council to explain how the Hilltop program works.


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