PLI, Judge Ricciardi discuss quality of life issues
Hilltop Alliance explains how they can help with those issues
November 12, 2019
Quality of life issues took main focus at the Arlington Civic Council November meeting with guest speakers District Judge Eugene Ricciardi, City of Pittsburgh Department of Permits, Licenses and Inspection’s (PLI) Government and Community Liaison Sally Stadelman and Hilltop Alliance Executive Director Aaron Sukinek.
Ms. Stadelman noted in another recent meeting residents expressed concerns about the former St. Henry’s Church building. She said the building’s owner has a number of properties that are in a similar condition to the former church building on Arlington Avenue.
PLI will soon be bringing the owner to court again over the condition of his properties. She said he has already been fined more than $5,000.
Explaining it’s mission, Ms. Stadelman said PLI has to “accommodate for all kinds of issues, all kinds of folks, all kinds of different resources across the city.” PLI needs to have a process that works for an elderly neighbor to the owners of a downtown skyscraper.
After receiving a notice generated by a 311 call, PLI visits the property and will issue a letter of violation if warranted. The property is visited again in 15 or 30 days for a second inspection, depending on the type of violation, and another letter of violation my be issued. After another 30 days if the violation isn’t remedied a court hearing is scheduled.
At the hearing, the judge can then issue a fine if the defendant is found guilty. However, she added, if PLI doesn’t have a good address for the property owner, usually taken from the Allegheny County property assessment website, they aren’t able to reach them with letters of violation.
“So, there’s nobody to bring to court and issue a fine to,” Ms. Stadelman said. She said it’s difficult for PLI to contact an owner especially when the owner has died and there wasn’t a will.
Judge Ricciardi confirmed that the city has to send out three notices before a case is brought to court. He said residents have to keep in mind he isn’t an advocate for PLI enforcement or even the community, he has to make a non-biased decision in each case.
He added PLI has always come into his court prepared with the evidence in each case.
However, Judge Ricciardi said it can take 120 days from when the violation is reported to when the case makes it to court. “That’s a problem right there.”
The judge said it has been frustrating for his staff to send out a hearing notice and have it come back because it wasn’t a good address.
“If we can’t get service, then PLI has to give us a different address,” he said.
Judge Ricciardi said once they get service (a good address) they can schedule a hearing, with or without the defendant. If the defendant is found guilty and issued a fine, they can be arrested if they don’t pay the fine within 30 days or if they don’t appeal the case to the Court of Common Pleas.
The Court of Common Pleas can uphold the fine, dismiss the case or reduce the fine amount.
In the case of the owner of the church property, he has been fined and each time appealed the fine.
The judge pointed out the city also has a “long list of dead-end properties,” properties that have been condemned and an owner can’t be found. If people want those properties cleaned up in their neighborhoods it’s important to get involved, “the squeaky wheel gets the grease,” he said.
He added it is important for neighborhood people to go to the PLI hearings.
Formed in 2008 and gaining a 501(c)3 non-profit status in 2010, the Hilltop Alliance works in the neighborhoods between Becks Run Road to Rt. 51 to Brentwood. Initially, membership included all volunteer organizations from Allentown, Beltzhoover, Carrick, Mt. Oliver Borough and Mt. Oliver City.
The neighborhoods were finding it was difficult to get the resources they wanted and needed and figured they were “stronger together than apart.” They worked to get to a scale where they could get together, get staff and go from there.
He explained one of the reasons the Alliance came together was one of the issues being discussed that evening, vacant and abandoned properties. The Alliance has staff and a “robust” program to address those types of problems.
Mr. Sukenik said some of their programs work in all the member neighborhoods, such as the Property Stabilization Program, while communities want help in other ways like developing a Neighborhood Plan. With a Neighborhood Plan, which can take years to develop, it’s possible to seek funding.
As an example, he said Allentown has been doing Business District Plans for more than 15 years. The Alliance helped update their Neighborhood Plan and develop a housing strategy. With the Neighborhood Plan and housing strategy, they were able to apply for and were awarded a highly competitive state tax credit program, the Neighborhood Partnership Program (NPP) in 2014.
Under the NPP, the business district went from a 40 percent vacancy rate to a 15 percent vacancy rate, with 34 new businesses and $9 million in commercial property reinvestment in that time.
On the residential side, the Alliance along with the URA, has acquired around 60 vacant homes and lots. Of those properties, 12 are getting rehabbed with an investment of $120,000-$150,000 each in partnership with the URA.
The HA is working with a developer on an application to build 29 new affordable housing units on 31 vacant lots in the “Grandview South” section of Allentown.
“In a matter of 10 years, there will be no more single-family vacant homes in this section of the neighborhood,” Mr. Sukenik said.
Under the Property Stabilization Program, the HA works with local residents and district judges and even gets referrals from District Judge Richard King.
Mr. Sukenik said Judge King will issue a stay while they work with the homeowner to make the needed repairs. “He’s not going to fine an 80-year-old woman who can’t afford to fix her porch.”
The Alliance works with the people who are referred to apply for help to remediate the problem.
The Property Stabilization Program’s team works to have PLI issues taken care of before they are reported to 311. Sometimes, Mr. Sukenik said, it just takes a letter to the property owner letting them know there is a problem other times repeated contacts are required.
Since it began, the Property Stabilization Program has been able to remediate more than 500 properties on the Hilltop without having them have to go to a PLI hearing.
Our approach is to help the people who don’t have the resources to help themselves, before they become a PLI issue, Mr. Sukenik said.
Debra Morgan, president of the Arlington Civic Council, said the council will soon be applying for membership into the Hilltop Alliance.