The Allegheny County Health Department intends to revise housing health rules for the first time in 25 years, and will soon open a 60-day period for members of the public to weigh in on its proposed revisions. Housing advocacy groups, though, are concerned about whether this will provide a sufficient platform for community members and experts to share their perspectives.
“If a revision to a code is being done but there’s no insights and perspective from those individuals who are most impacted, then you might be missing some really critical information to help guide decision-making,” said Michelle Naccarati-Chapkis, executive director of the nonprofit Women for a Healthy Environment.
During the county Board of Health’s bimonthly meeting on May 3, Health Department officials presented a proposal for revisions to Article VI of the department’s Rules and Regulations. Article VI outlines the county’s housing and community environment policies, including establishing permit requirements, the “minimum standards” for property conditions and the responsibilities of owners and occupants.
The board voted to open the public comment period, set to run from May 10 through July 10, during which time the Health Department will conduct a July 6 public hearing and then compile written comments from community residents. At the end of the period, the department will incorporate the feedback it gathers into an updated version of the Article VI revisions, which the board will vote on in the fall.
Public comment periods are intended to help the Health Department collect input from affected residents. However, to ensure there’s “robust community engagement” in the Article VI revision process, advocates are calling on the board to convene a Housing Advisory Committee — despite the Health Department’s concerns about how time-consuming it would be to recruit such a committee.
“The broader public has an important role to play in advocating for policy and practice changes to improve the housing goals and objectives of the board and the department, and in monitoring progress toward goals and objectives,” said Kevin Quisenberry, litigation director for the legal assistance nonprofit Community Justice Project, during the public comment portion of the meeting. “At present, the Health Department has no structured mechanism for this sort of community engagement with regard to the housing program.”
A PublicSource and WESA investigation in 2021 raised questions about the effectiveness of Article VI. The two outlets looked at data on 8,765 housing health complaints — ranging from lack of heat and water to sewage backups to rodent infestations — received by the department from 2017 through mid-2021. The investigation showed that the department verified that the fixes were made in roughly two in every five cases, and assessed just nine penalties.
The department’s discussion of housing health standards comes months after the City of Pittsburgh’s efforts to regulate rental housing ran aground.
In March, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania ruled against the city government in a case in which advocates for landlords challenged an ordinance that would have required registration and inspections of rental housing. The city last month appealed the decision to the state Supreme Court.
Balancing engagement and expediency
Creating effective housing policies requires bringing together people who can provide “unique viewpoints, perspectives and lived experience” about community life, said Naccarati-Chapkis, who is also a member of Allegheny County Council.
“That input helps to bring about all of the revisions in the code that could be necessary and should be necessary, as opposed to a public comment period, where you’re just reviewing and reacting to what’s being proposed,” she added.
If convened, Quisenberry said a Housing Advisory Committee should consist of subject-matter experts, advocates, housing providers and residents. He suggested modeling a Housing Advisory Committee on the Health Department’s existing advisory committees for food safety and air pollution control, whose members either live in affected neighborhoods or have backgrounds in industry, academia or business.
During the meeting, board members expressed interest in creating a Housing Advisory Committee irrespective of whether that committee will guide the Article VI revision process.
Otis Pitts, the Health Department’s deputy director for food safety, housing and policy, said the department will give all public comments — including the request to form an advisory committee — “proper consideration” and will respond in due time. He added that advisory committees “add value” to the policy revision process but was hesitant to create one for the housing code revisions.
“It does take some time to recruit and appoint a diverse group of members,” he said. “Given the nature of this set of updates, I would not want to jeopardize this very basic and foundational set of standards.”
A department spokesperson later told PublicSource that the department “will review and consider the recommendation [of an advisory committee] prior to submitting a final draft to the Board of Health.”
Pitts’ team hopes to implement the Article VI revisions by July 1, 2024; the code’s last update was in 1997.
Naccarati-Chapkis said the department began meeting with stakeholders about updating the county’s housing code in 2019, but paused these discussions when the COVID-19 pandemic ushered in a period of shifting priorities and staffing changes. They resumed meeting about the revisions last year.
“We’ve waited since 1997, we don’t have to rush through this process of a Housing Advisory Committee,” she said. “They can move forward with the proposed changes. However, we still know that there are a lot of places within the Article VI code that have to actually be reviewed as well that impact resident community health.”
Modernizing policies and improving safety
The Health Department’s proposed revisions for Article VI revolve around enhancing the code’s readability, improving safety standards and modernizing property maintenance requirements to meet international standards.
A portion of the revisions are intended to clarify the responsibilities of landlords and tenants, including changes that will instruct tenants to notify landlords of issues, work with landlords to manage pests, avoid creating fire hazards and ensure they store potentially dangerous materials safely.
Several sections of the code would be updated to reflect the standards set forth in the International Property Maintenance Code, which establishes minimum requirements for ventilation, occupancy limitations, plumbing facilities, fire safety and mechanical and electrical fixtures. These include adjusting requirements regarding ventilation and openable windows.
The department is also proposing revisions to improve safety requirements for properties, including requiring deadbolts on all entry doors, requiring property owners to provide tenants with sufficient trash storage containers and requiring carbon monoxide detectors for all dwellings with fuel burning appliances, ongoing renovations, fireplaces or attached garages.
Part of the revision process involves updating more than 20 definitions to improve Article VI’s clarity, which they believe will improve compliance.
“Article VI, as it currently reads, is a little convoluted,” said Tim Murphy, the department’s housing and community environment program manager, during the board’s meeting. “But we really feel it’s important that the average resident be able to understand it.”
Amelia Winger is PublicSource’s health reporter with a focus on mental health. She can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @ameliawinger.
Editor’s note: This story was updated on 5/9/23 to include additional information provided by the Allegheny County Health Department.
This reporting has been made possible through the Staunton Farm Mental Health Reporting Fellowship and the Jewish Healthcare Foundation.
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Through Dec. 31, the Wyncote Foundation, Loud Hound Foundation and our generous local match pool supporters will match your new monthly donation 12 times or double your one-time gift, all up to $1,000. Now that's good news!
Readers tell us they can't find the information they get from our reporting anywhere else, and we're proud to provide this important service for our community. We work hard to produce accurate, timely, impactful journalism without paywalls that keeps our region informed and moving forward.
However, only about .1% of the people who read our stories contribute to our work financially. Our newsroom depends on the generosity of readers like yourself to make our high-quality local journalism possible, and the costs of the resources it takes to produce it have been rising, so each member means a lot to us.
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