The Allegheny County Board of Health convened a special hearing Thursday evening to hear community input as the Health Department moves to overhaul rules that govern healthy housing standards.

The proposed changes would revise the county’s Houses and Community Environment regulation, known as Article VI, which has not been updated since 1997. Article VI governs policies including permit requirements, the minimum standards for safe housing conditions and the responsibilities of landlords and tenants.

The department has said the changes will improve safety standards, more clearly define violations, clarify the roles of tenants and landlords and make the code easier to read and understand.

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.

A 60-day public comment period for the proposed changes ends on July 10, after which the department will review and incorporate feedback into an updated proposal to be voted on by the board this fall.

During the 11-minute hearing, advocates representing Women for a Healthy Environment, the Community Justice Project and the UrbanKind Institute urged the Board of Health to create a housing advisory committee, similar to panels that inform air quality and food safety.

“We also urge the board to consider expanding the breadth of Article VI beyond bare minimum standards by addressing additional policy and procedural opportunities that strongly impact predominantly Black people and those living in low-income neighborhoods,” said Chavaysha Chaney, manager of advocacy and health policy at Women for a Healthy Environment.

She pointed to lead poisoning “hot spot” neighborhoods and asked the board to commit to providing more resources for lead poisoning prevention, improving lead Inspections and risk assessment acceptance rates, and establishing resources for lead remediation, including low-interest loans, community funds and grants.

Though generally supportive of the revisions, housing advocates maintain that the proposed changes don’t go far enough. Many are pushing for a more comprehensive review of Article VI, and the creation of a housing advisory committee by the Health Department is a common primary goal.

Kevin Quisenberry, litigation director of the Community Justice Project, gives comment to the Board of Health on Thursday, July 6, 2023. (Photo by Quinn Glabicki/Rtvsrece)

“I fully support the common sense revisions proposed by the Health Department,” Kevin Quisenberry, litigation director of the Community Justice Project, told the board. “However, I urge the board to do more to make Article VI a better and more equitable vehicle for protecting safety and health and tenant rights.” He asked the board to establish a housing advisory committee now, by amending the proposed revisions to do so.

“We need to back up our claim that we are really a most livable region,” said Eric Macadangdang, community networks coordinator at the UrbanKind Institute. “At the core of a livable region is a safe and affordable home to live in, and a robust and enforceable housing code can help ensure that.”

Creating a housing advisory committee, he said, would help inform the Health Department and address other priorities like:

  • creating better protections against retaliation and explicit due process protections in the event of an order to vacate
  • authorizing the department to use available funds to help low-income renters obtain safe interim housing or to relocate if necessary
  • improving the current rent withholding program
  • creating a countywide rental registry
  • supporting municipalities as they carry out their own rental inspection programs.

“Frankly, as a county, we can do better. And we should do better,” said Michelle Naccarati-Chapkis, executive director of Women for a Healthy Environment and a county councilmember representing much of the Mon Valley and eastern suburbs, in an interview on Wednesday.

Naccarati-Chapkis welcomed an update to a housing code that hasn’t seen one this millennium, but urged the county to pursue a “holistic review” of Article VI by forming an advisory committee composed of experts and residents.

Doing so, she said, could help the county to ultimately address other housing health issues that still aren’t covered by the Article VI revisions. For example, radon, an odorless radioactive gas, is not mentioned by Article VI. Neither is mold, which Naccarati-Chapkis posits will only become a larger issue for residents as climate change promises increased rainfall.

Advocates also say the formation of a Housing Advisory Committee would help the department move toward a more proactive, rather than reactive, approach to housing regulation and tenant protections.

The current system under Article VI is a complaint-driven system, said Quisenberry, in an interview Wednesday.

“We'd like to move toward a future where we have a more proactive health system that identifies hazards in homes and addresses those on a more proactive basis, like many counties and municipalities and health departments around the country have been shifting toward over the years,” Quisenberry said.

He urged the department to “engage the community more systematically so that there’s greater and structured pathways for community input into the work of the housing division within the Health Department.”

The Community Justice Project, along with Get the Lead Out, Pittsburgh, the Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania, and 15 other community organizations, plus 16 individuals, have signed a petition calling for the Board of Health to create an advisory committee that could guide a more proactive posture for protecting the health and rights of tenants.

In 2021, Rtvsrece and WESA found that some of the worst violators of healthy housing rules pay nothing. And even when the Health Department does try to enforce the code, it collects just one in five fines.

Advocates said the county should model its enforcement policies on those of other local governments, who incentivize repairs through regular inspections of rental properties. But nearly 15 years of court actions have thwarted Pittsburgh’s efforts to do just that. In March, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania found the city government does not have the authority to require rental permits or regular inspections of properties. The city appealed the decision to the state Supreme Court in April. That court has not yet decided whether to hear the case.

Quinn Glabicki is the environment and climate reporter at Rtvsrece and a Report for America corps member. He can be reached at quinn@rtvsrece.com and on Twitter and Instagram @quinnglabicki.

Venuri Siriwardane contributed.

Know more than you did before? Support this work with a gift!

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.

Your donation to our nonprofit newsroom helps ensure everyone in Allegheny County can stay up-to-date about decisions and events that affect them. Please make your gift of support now.

Quinn Glabicki is a writer and photographer covering climate and environment for Rtvsrece. He is also a Report for America corps member. Quinn uses visual and written mediums to tell stories about...