PLI making making building inspection, code enforcement more transparent in city
June 20, 2017
When Maura Kennedy was appointed director of the Bureau of Building Inspection three years ago she said there were a lot of really great people working there, but they weren’t keeping up with the times and were stuck in the 1980s.
Speaking before the Arlington Civic Council, Director Kennedy explained at the time the people in BBI weren’t given the support and encouragement to grow and acquire the skills needed to improve the process. Improvement was needed not only for those calling with code enforcement issues through 311, but also for those who were looking to improve their properties.
The department was reorganized into the Bureau of Permits, Licenses and Inspections (PLI) with employees receiving additional training and skills with an emphasis on improving the 311 and building permits process.
“We have more people with more skills and we’re able to help people more efficiently in more ways,” she said.
PLI is working toward putting more information online. In addition, she said they are now able to respond to 311 calls in “real time” with a goal of having a response to the complaint within three days.
PLI complaints are the number one reason people call 311, outside of snow days the director said.
When people call 311 with a complaint, they should get a ticket number. After an inspector is sent out to the complaint site, 311 is updated and the ticket number can be used to learn the result. In addition, PLI’s website, https://pittsburghpa.buildingeye.com, is also updated with current information.
Director Kennedy said residents can “track everything we do” on the website. It’s possible to set up alerts where the website will email out all violations in a neighborhood or block. The Buildingeye website also has all building permit information in the city and is updated nightly.
“You can see every application we got and any action taken on it,” Ms. Kennedy said.
To a complaint that it takes too long for 311 complaints to be resolved and with repeat offenders the property owner starts the clock over with each new complaint.
“You’re never gaining ground,” the resident said.
The director said they have improved that process and now re-inspect a complaint in 15 days instead of 30. PLI also keeps track of how many times a complaint has been filed against a particular property and that information is also available on its website.
“You can see every time we cited them and what we did, the day we re-inspected them and what we cited them for,” she said.
Director Kennedy said the State of Pennsylvania will not let them legally enter a property until it has been cited. Unfortunately, by some estimates there are 15,000 abandoned properties in the city of Pittsburgh and “we’re not going to demo our way out of it.”
She said through a program the mayor is proposing, there could be a lot of different solutions for the property depending on what the community wants.
“How do we preserve this land in a way that we don’t detract from the community and the residents here contributing in the meantime while we figure out what’s happening,” she said.
The director said it’s for the community to decide what they want to see happening in their neighborhood.
Several residents complained about derelict properties next to their homes and a lack of action by the city.
“The frustration that you have, that we have, is that the owner’s dead, there weren’t survivors, the house wasn’t willed to anyone, it’s paid for so the bank isn’t taking it, and the property sits there and sits there and sits there,” Councilman Bruce Kraus said. “We’re governed by the state what we can and can’t do with that property.”
A temporary solution is to have someone go in and clean up the property, he added. While a more permanent solution may be demolition, the city has “put a hold on demolitions” because of asbestos concerns and how the city was handling state and federal regulations.
The city will only consider demolishing a property if it is condemned and shown to be structurally unsound.
Director Kennedy said it costs the city as much as $30,000 to demolish a house and asked if it was fair to the residents of Pittsburgh to pay to tear it down if the property owner is known.
Asked if a lien is placed on the demolished property or on the owner’s primary residence, the director said they lien the demolished property. In addition, about four years ago, the state gave the city the power to lien other properties owned by the owner.
“They might walk away from properties in Pittsburgh, but when we take it to their community and their house, we can do that,” she said.
In Philadelphia, she led a program to start a “vacant property court” where they tracked down 17,000 property owners, “one at a time,” and would like to see the same thing happen in Pittsburgh.
Getting back to how things have changed in the department, Director Kennedy said in the past they were only able to do around 200 inspections a week. Reports were done on typewriters, the city had 17 different violation letters and it wasn’t uncommon for six different inspectors to visit a building or violation site. At times, a property owner would get as many as five different violation letters.
Now, inspectors are cross trained and the process is transparent with permits, violations and resolutions all posted online. She said the number of inspections has increased.
Currently, PLI is doing a proactive inspection of all vacant buildings in the city to get a “better handle” on the demolition list and prioritize properties on the list.
Prior to the “hiccup” with asbestos and the demolition list, PLI rewrote the demolition specs for the first time in 20 years. The old specs allowed the dumping of dirty fill in the void left from demolition and didn’t require top soil, the planting of grass seed or making sure the property drained properly.
The department is also doing proactive fire safety inspections, including inspection of all Pittsburgh Public Schools for the first time.
“We want to make sure our children are going to school in safe schools, where their fire alarms actually work, the sprinklers work and we’ve been working with the schools to do that. All Downtown structures, all cooking hoods, all special assemblies, all day cares, occupancies where if there was an unfortunate fire it would potentially be very dangerous,” she said.
“We’re trying very hard to be proactive, partnering and have more bandwidth.”