Over-occupancy a problem in some neighborhoods
More aggressive stance taken against violators
Increased tenant awareness and steep fines for offenders are among the strategies local officials are considering in an effort to crackdown on over-occupancy violations in South Side neighborhoods.
Pittsburgh housing code prohibits more than three unrelated individuals from living in a single family home or apartment, but according to local officials, many South Side property owners are ignoring the law and tenants may not be aware of it.
According to Bureau of Building Inspection Chief Maura Kennedy, over-occupancy can lead to many problems and safety issues, and cracking down on violations is a top priority for the Peduto administration.
"A greater density of individuals living [together] can pose greater safety issues," Ms. Kennedy said. "We definitely want to work with the community to support this initiative."
Of the problems caused by overcrowding, parking congestion on neighborhood streets remains a top concern for South Side residents. According to Pittsburgh City Council President Bruce Kraus, South Side streets were not built to withstand the parking congestion that occurs when multiple residents share a home.
"Usually with each person living in an establishment like that comes a vehicle," Mr. Kraus said. "If you understand the history of the neighborhood, the streets were not built to accommodate the types of vehicles that are associated with residency now."
According to Mr. Kraus, despite many city property owners knowing the law, they continue to violate it for profit.
"The absence of knowledge of law that exists has never been a defense," Mr. Kraus said. "People that own property, I would argue, clearly know the law that is in place. Rental property is a business and so clearly they're going to want to get the biggest bang for their buck."
District Magisterial Judge Gene Ricciardi has heard four over-occupancy cases in the first five weeks of 2015 and a dozen cases in 2014. He said since he took office nine years ago, he has never heard a case in which a landlord claimed to not know the law.
"Not once has anyone raised [ignorance] as a defense," Judge Ricciardi said. "I believe overwhelmingly that the landlords know the law. I don't believe the tenants do though."
Duncan Falk, a South Side resident who lives in a five bedroom house with four unrelated roommates said that since 2009, he has lived in three over-occupied locations in Oakland and South Side. Mr. Falk said if he had been aware of the over-occupancy law, he would have decided to live elsewhere.
"If it was illegal and I knew it, I wouldn't do it," Mr. Falk said. "There were never clear signs, beyond rumors, that it was a real law."
Mr. Falk, a graduate of Duquesne University, said he didn't know about the law while he was at school, and he discovered one of his apartments on a cork board on campus.
"The other one I found posted on a piece of paper on Duquesne's campus on a cork board," Mr. Falk said. "Somebody targeting university students put that there."
Judge Ricciardi said if local universities were to educate new students about over-occupancy during orientation, it could greatly contribute to reducing the problem.
"If I'm a student and I hear at orientation that I can't have more than three unrelated individuals, and my sophomore year I go out to rent an apartment, I'd remember that I can be liable...," Judge Ricciardi said. "I'm 100 percent in favor that if tenants are aware of the law and know the law, that they could also be cited."
Earlier this year, Judge Ricciardi handed down a $300,000 fine to an Oakland landlord for an over-occupancy violation. He said because landlords view the penalties as the cost of doing business, he will continue to hand down large fines to property owners who continue to violate the law.
Judge Ricciardi's fines range from $200,000 to $650,000 since he's been in office.
Since he has started handing down large fines, city building inspectors have noted the decrease in over-occupancy cases and complaints, but the problem still exists.
"I'm not hearing the smaller landlord with a possible four [individuals] and the folks have not been problems," Judge Ricciardi said. "I'm hearing the ones that have been very egregious, where they've had six, seven, eight unrelated individuals. Where there have been numerous parties."
He said when hearing an over-occupancy case, he often considers several factors such as the amount of rent the landlord is receiving, the profitability of the home, the testimony of the witnesses, and the number of visits from the building inspector.
Mr. Kraus also mentioned that for several years, the city has been attempting to implement a registry that would require landlords to register with the city and provide property contact information to authorities in the event of over-occupancy violations or other problems.
"A registry is one of those tools we can use and have in the toolbox to combat our inability to contact the owners of properties when there are problems," Mr. Kraus said.
Mr. Kraus said city council will vote on the registry in late February or early March.