The Allegheny County Board of Health postponed an expected vote to revise a set of rules that empower inspectors to crack down on substandard landlords. 

The board was scheduled to vote during its bimonthly meeting Wednesday on proposed changes to the county’s Houses and Community Environment regulation, known as Article VI. It establishes the “minimum standards” for safe housing conditions and explains what owners and occupants must do to meet those standards. If approved, the changes will be the first update to the county’s housing code in more than 25 years. 

The vote was removed from the meeting agenda Tuesday to allow the board more time to consider the changes, said Neil Ruhland, a spokesperson for the Allegheny County Health Department [ACHD]. A previous version of the agenda shows that the proposed changes to Article VI had been scheduled for board approval. 

“The Board of Health as well as the department wanted to take one more final look at it and try to see if there were ways that they could strengthen it even more before bringing it to a vote,” Ruhland said. He declined to say if the changes would be ready for a vote at the board’s next meeting in November.

The proposed update includes new requirements for installing deadbolts and carbon monoxide detectors, updated violation and penalty procedures, and rules for dwellings to be graded and properly drained to prevent landslides, among a host of other code revisions.

Some board meeting attendees expressed surprise that the vote was removed from the agenda on short notice without communication to interested organizations. 

Chavaysha Chaney, manager of advocacy and health policy at Women for a Healthy Environment, attended the meeting because she expected the board to approve the proposed changes. 

“It’s disheartening to know that there was no communication made to folks about the change at all,” she said.   

Houses stack up the hillside in Pittsburgh’s West End on Monday, Jan. 2, 2023, in Elliott. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)
Houses stack up the hillside in Pittsburgh’s West End on Monday, Jan. 2, 2023, in Elliott. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

Chaney is among a group of advocates that want far more community involvement in the process of updating the housing code. Women for a Healthy Environment is among 18 organizations and 19 individuals who signed a petition calling for the board to create an advisory committee. Composed of experts, advocates and residents, it would help modernize the code, which they said should go beyond minimum standards and do more to protect the health and rights of tenants. 

“[T]he code has not kept pace with best practices,” advocates said in the petition, which was also signed by Community Justice Project and Get the Lead Out, Pittsburgh. “The broader public has an important role to play” in making sure the county adopts those best practices.   

Kevin Quisenberry, the litigation director of Community Justice Project, said representatives from ACHD met with him and with other leaders from organizations that had pushed for the creation of an advisory committee ahead of the board meeting. The department representatives — Timothy Murphy, a housing program manager, and Otis Pitts, deputy director for public policy and community relations — told Quisenberry and other advocates that they will not be recommending the creation of an advisory committee. 

Quisenberry declined to share ACHD’s reasoning behind its decision to forgo the creation of an advisory committee. Ruhland, the ACHD spokesperson, declined to provide additional comments. 

“I hope [this postponement] is because they’re rethinking it,” said Quisenberry. 

Advocates told the board they were disappointed that ACHD is not creating an advisory committee.   

“It’s disappointing to residents, communities and advocates who have relentlessly asked the Health Department to create equitable approaches to address critical needs in the community,” Chaney said. She added that going beyond the bare minimum outlined in Article VI would strongly impact those living in “low-income Black and Brown neighborhoods.” 

Robert Damewood, a senior staff attorney at Regional Housing Legal Services, told the board that the county’s system of enforcing healthy housing standards is “fundamentally broken.”  

“Tenants have very little bargaining power when it comes to whether or not to accept housing that is unsafe and unhealthy,” he said, adding that the current process can lead to landlords retaliating against tenants who file complaints.  

“And very few tenants are willing to risk being put out on the street. And so few file complaints with the Health Department. That’s the way the system is set up,” he said, which is why “the problems that Article VI is set up to address go unresolved.”

The Health Department has said the proposed changes to Article VI will improve safety, clearly define violations, clarify the roles of tenants and landlords and make the code easier to read and understand. It asked the public to comment on its proposed revision to Article VI during a 60-day period, which ended on July 10. Health officials also took public testimony during a July 6 hearing

Venuri Siriwardane is PublicSource’s health reporter, and can be reached at

This reporting has been made possible through the Staunton Farm Mental Health Reporting Fellowship and the Jewish Healthcare Foundation.

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Venuri Siriwardane is a health reporter for PublicSource, with a focus on mental health. She comes to PublicSource through the Staunton Farm Mental Health Reporting Fellowship. Venuri has a dual background...