District judge works to make sure problems are abated in neighborhood
November 14, 2017
Focusing on code enforcement issues affecting quality of life issues in the South Side Flats and Slopes, South Watch each month brings residents together with local stakeholders, government, educational and more, to advocate for remediation and to monitor the outcomes.
At the November 8 South Watch meeting, officials from City of Pittsburgh Public Works, Environmental Services (ES) and the Pittsburgh Parking Authority (PPA), along with District Magisterial Judge Gene Ricciardi, Zone 3 Commander Karen Dixon and Tim Lewis from Duquesne University met with members of the South Side Community Council and South Side Chamber of Commerce for updates.
Rather than addressing the 90 properties reported through South Watch, they focus on what is considered the top ten problematic locations that are determined to be the most persistent or severe. Barbara Rudiak, facilitator of the South Watch, said although they are focusing on the hot spots others are being addressed.
Of the 90 properties that have been reported, 54 have had their issues remediated, 27 continue to be monitored and an additional nine are in progress. Those that have been remediated may have received a notice identifying the problem from South Watch or going forward a notice from Environmental Services, a letter from Environmental Services or have been contacted in person from the agency.
In addition, Ms. Rudiak said South Watch continues to work with Environmental Services on properties that do not make it to the report. The group will soon be expanding their monitoring work to include the area between the Birmingham Bridge and SouthSide Works on the river side of E. Carson Street.
Judge Ricciardi said the citations filed by Environmental Services and Public Works are sent to Pittsburgh Municipal Court where Pittsburgh District Judges rotate hearing the cases. Housing Court citations filed through the city Permits, Licenses and Inspections (PLI) bureau are filed in the local neighborhood courts
He advocated that the citations from the neighborhood should be heard in the neighborhood also instead of Downtown by a rotating judge who may not be as familiar with the area.
“Why should I rule on something in Morningside, that judge knows that area much better than Gene Ricciardi does,” he said.
Roberta Jamison, from the Department of Environmental Services, said that week Councilman Dan Gilman suggested in Pittsburgh City Council those hearing should be held at the local courts.
Ms. Rudiak asked if it was helpful to attend the hearings and bring current pictures if a property hasn’t been remediated by the date of the hearing.
Ms. Jamison said it could be helpful and ES does already document the condition of the property, whether it has been cleaned along with any history of violations.
Continuing with his presentation, Judge Ricciardi said his process is “relatively straight forward.” He explained he is at the end of the process, once the city departments have tried and failed to get the problem abated.
A citation is filed at the Magisterial District Judge’s office, the office dockets the case and a hearing is scheduled. The owner of the property is notified by Certified and First-Class mail to the address supplied by the city.
“We have to be fair and impartial in this process. It’s actually a trial,” Mr. Ricciardi said. If the city provides a bad address, they are not permitted to look up the correct address – delaying the process.
Judge Ricciardi said there is no rule for how often they have to schedule Housing Court hearings, but he and other local district judges try to do it at least twice a month knowing that PLI inspectors are required to attend.
“It’s my goal to get the problem taken care of, to get it abated, to get it mitigated,” he said. “I’ve found that residents and neighbors aren’t really looking for these people to get fined so they can applaud and still have the problem. They want the problem taken care of.”
The judge explained about 25 percent of people take care of the problem by the time they come to court. Once they receive the official notice. “It puts a small amount of fear into their hearts.”
Another 25 percent of the time it’s a “dead end case” due to a bad address, the owner being deceased or living far out of town. He added he would like to see the city develop a policy on the cases.
“If it’s a dead end case, we’re still stuck with the problem,” the judge said. “The weeds, the garbage, the quality of life issues.”
Another 25 percent of the time he gives continuances or postponements. If it’s a big problem, he wants to see progress on mitigating the reason for the hearing. Most of the time it’s taken care of when they come back, he said.
If the violation is taken care of in a timely fashion, he often dismisses the case with no fines or court costs. However, if it takes too long to fix the problem, he will fine the owner.
“For something really egregious,” he said. “I give fines that are really, really high.”
In the past, he explained, some landlords didn’t care if they were fined and the rental property liened. Now, it’s allowable to lien the property owner’s primary residence for nonpayment of fines.
Mr. Ricciardi stressed the importance of repeated reporting of problem properties. If there is only one citation for a continuing problem, there is only one fine. If there are multiple citations, there can be multiple fines.
“I want you to know. I’m not an extension of the police force. I’m not an extension of the inspectors,” he said. “Everyone needs to know they get a fair and impartial hearing when they come to me.”
In a Housing Court trial, the PLI inspector acts as the prosecutor, unless it’s a really egregious case when a District Attorney will prosecute, he explained. Only a small number of cases get as far as trial without being mitigated first.
The exception, Judge Ricciardi said, is for over occupancy – having more than three unrelated people living in a residence.
If the landlord is found guilty of over occupancy, he will often fine they the amount the owner has received in rent from the excess tenant(s) and add to it.
In any hearing, Mr. Ricciardi said, it’s important for neighbors to attend and testify. Testimony or support from neighbors helps to add understanding of the situation.
The judge said he tells violators in his court they shouldn’t be upset with the PLI inspector. The inspector didn’t come looking for them, they were at their property because of a 311 call stating there was a problem.
“Inspectors don’t have time to go out there and just travel the streets and waste their time. You folks give them ten properties and it’s easy for them to get to,” Judge Ricciardi said stressing the importance of 311 calls and groups like South Watch.
The next South Watch meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, Dec. 13, 6 p.m. at the Brashear Center, 2005 Sarah Street.