Tacia Brentley’s life was changed forever by unhealthy housing in Allegheny County.

The 47-year-old mother of six has two daughters who developed disabilities after being exposed to lead in their Swissvale home, which the family rented in the early 2000s using a Section 8 housing voucher. She said the property passed a public housing agency’s inspection process — a federal requirement — before they moved in. It’s a result she can’t understand to this day.

“If the program was there to make sure that low-income people are in sustainable, affordable, safe housing,” she said, “it didn’t fill that gap” for us.

The county’s Houses and Community Environment regulation, known as Article VI, went into effect in 1996 — several years before that inspection of Brentley’s rented home. It establishes the “minimum standards” for safe housing conditions and governs the Allegheny County Health Department’s ability to enforce those rules.

The code was updated Wednesday for the first time in more than a quarter century: The Allegheny County Board of Health voted to approve proposed changes to Article VI, which the department said would improve safety, clarify the roles of tenants and landlords, and align the regulation with international standards. The changes are expected to take effect Oct. 1.

The update followed a monthslong process that included a 60-day public comment period last summer and an eleventh-hour postponement of the vote, which was originally scheduled for September. The outcome was deeply unsatisfying for healthy housing advocates, who say the changes don’t go far enough to protect vulnerable tenants like Brentley. They urged the department in public comments and private meetings to create a housing advisory committee and overhaul the code in a more fundamental way.

Those recommendations were off the table during the vote, though the department said it would consider them for future updates, according to its responses to public comments.

Health Department staff told the board the update “was never intended to be an overhaul of this section of the code.” Rather, it’s a “long overdue” update to “very specific standards within Article VI that ultimately promote health and safety throughout the county,” said Otis Pitts, deputy director for public policy and community relations.

The update is “a foundation for other ideas and proposals in the very near future,” he added.

Several board members asked Pitts and Housing Program Manager Timothy Murphy to set a timetable for exploring those other ideas and proposals, including the creation of an advisory committee.

“We just can’t afford to wait around,” Bob Damewood, a Pittsburgh-based senior staff attorney at Regional Housing Legal Services, told Rtvsrece. “This is urgent, right? People are living in unsafe and unhealthy housing now.”

‘Breathing, drinking, ingesting lead’

Brentley was a single parent in her twenties who worked full time, took care of her kids and managed a health condition that caused debilitating chest pain.

She needed help paying for housing and applied for rental assistance through the Housing Choice Voucher Program, a federal program that’s administered by local public housing agencies. She used her voucher to rent a four-bedroom home in Swissvale and moved in with her children, who ranged from 2 to 7 years old at the time.

A few months later, she caught her daughters peeling paint off the walls and eating the chips. One was even gnawing on a windowsill. Alarmed, she took them to a doctor who diagnosed them with lead poisoning. Blood tests showed her two oldest daughters, then 6 and 7, had higher levels of lead in their bodies than their siblings. Both later developed learning disabilities and behavioral problems, which can be caused by lead exposure.

Brentley said Health Department inspectors tested the property after her children were diagnosed. They found lead in the paint, pipes and the soil around the foundation of the house.

“We were literally breathing, drinking, ingesting lead,” she said.

The update to Article VI includes new requirements for installing deadbolts and carbon monoxide detectors. It aims to curb fire hazards and regulate the storage of dangerous materials. And dwellings must be graded and properly drained to prevent landslides, among a host of other revisions.

Notably, it also clarifies language around lead hazards, explicitly requiring abatement of “chewable surfaces” and “deteriorated lead-based paint.”

Advocates say what happened to Brentley’s family could have been avoided if the department proactively inspected properties every few years instead of taking a complaint-driven approach to enforcing the code.

Kevin Quisenberry, litigation director for the Community Justice Project, speaks at the March 6, 2024 meeting of the Allegheny County Board of Health, in the Allegheny County Courthouse, Downtown. (Photo by Venuri Siriwardane/Rtvsrece)

“You're relying on scared, low-income renters who are in crisis to stick their necks out, file a complaint with the Health Department and risk eviction from the landlord,” said Kevin Quisenberry, litigation director for Community Justice Project, which provides legal aid to low-income people in Pennsylvania.

At least one board member shared his concerns.

“It's a little bit troubling, frankly, that the complaint-driven mechanism is the one at play here,” said Joylette Portlock, who’s also the executive director of Sustainable Pittsburgh. “I feel like we want dwellings to be safe, regardless of whether complaints are being made or not.”

During an interview, one property manager cautioned that the proactive inspection approach recommended by advocates would unfairly burden landlords who are operating in good faith.

“Taking that approach pretty much assumes that all property owners and all housing providers are guilty,” said Ed Benz, president of the Active Community of Real Estate Entrepreneurs. “The majority of housing providers are actually decent people who go out of their way to provide a healthy space for people to live in.”

Benz said his group includes more than 500 people, most of whom have not had complaints filed against them by tenants.

Article VI empowers inspectors to crack down on substandard landlords when complaints are filed, but a 2021 investigation by Rtvsrece and WESA found that some of the worst violators of healthy housing rules pay nothing. Even when the Health Department does try to enforce the code, it collects just one in five fines.

Quisenberry, Damewood and others are lobbying the department to create a housing advisory committee: It would bring a diverse group of stakeholders together — experts, advocates and people with lived experience — to help the department change a system they view as fundamentally broken.

The committee should be codified in Article VI so healthy housing would be an ongoing priority that “outlasts any particular [county] administration,” said Quisenberry. He held up the department’s air quality and food safety advisory committees as examples of what the process might look like. Advocates outlined their proposals in public comments submitted to the department and a petition signed by 18 organizations and 19 individuals last year.

Is a larger stakeholder process needed?

Health Department representatives told advocates they would not be creating an advisory committee at this time. But the department said it’s not opposed to doing so in the future — through a separate amendment “based on a larger stakeholder process,” according to its responses to public comments.

The response baffled some advocates, who said the county wasn’t rising to meet an urgently needed overhaul of Article VI.

“It’s a little absurd, given … where we are as it relates to lead poisoning,” said Chavaysha Chaney, manager of advocacy and health policy for Women for a Healthy Environment. She described Brentley as one of many Black women “who’ve had to deal with this and really didn’t have any help.”

Chavaysha Chaney, manager of advocacy and health policy for Women for a Healthy Environment, speaks at the Allegheny County Board of Health meeting. (Photo by Venuri Siriwardane/Rtvsrece)

Quisenberry said the department’s response “doesn’t make any sense at all” because he believes the stakeholder process for another amendment would look much like the one that took place last year.

But some landlord groups agreed with the department’s rationale.

Significant changes to the housing code would be better handled by the county’s legislative and executive branches, said Matt Vermeire, government affairs director for the Realtors Association of Metropolitan Pittsburgh, whose members include some landlords and property managers. If it were introduced by County Council, there would be more deliberation and public input, he added.

“There’s just more eyeballs on that process,” Vermeire said, noting the recent update to Article VI was within the scope of what the department outlined last summer, which was to align it with modern property maintenance standards after more than 25 years.

Fresh hopes amid new county leadership

Brentley said she went through a nightmarish process to get out of her Swissvale rental years ago. Her landlords stopped speaking to her after they learned her children had been exposed to lead at the property. And the Allegheny County Housing Authority offered to move her family to a public housing complex — an environment she felt wasn’t safe for her children.

They were only able to move out when she alerted an inspector who was “up the chain of command” at the housing authority. But her daughters continued to suffer: Her oldest developed behavioral problems and picked fights in school. Her second-oldest had to be put on an individualized education program for her learning disability.

Brentley feels the Health Department should create an advisory committee that includes tenant voices.

“If it’s going to help make any changes anywhere for anybody, then I didn’t have to go through it” in vain, she said.

A woman wearing a hoodie with the words love is all you need.
Tacia Brentley stands for a portrait at her Penn Hills home on March 5, 2024. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/Rtvsrece)

Quisenberry said he and other advocates are “extending a lot of faith and credit” to new County Executive Sara Innamorato, noting she made healthy housing “one of the tentpoles” of her campaign.

He’s hopeful this administration will move the needle on getting the county’s older housing stock “on an upward trajectory for health and safety.”

Damewood would like to see the county adopt a program like one in Syracuse, N.Y., which mandates an interior inspection every three years for all one- and two-family rental properties. He said the county could also take its cues from the “urgent repair” program in Los Angeles, which gives landlords two days to fix serious problems. If they don’t, the city can enter the property to make repairs at a cost to the owners.

The administration values input from housing advocates and shares many of their goals, said Abigail Gardner, a county spokesperson, noting the update to Article VI “was an important, if incremental, first step.” 

The county executive’s office is hiring a director of housing strategy in the coming weeks to lead this work, she added. The administration will be working with community members, she said, to “ensure their voice is heard when it comes to housing issues.”

Brentley now owns her own home in Penn Hills. She lives with two of her younger children and has custody of two of her grandchildren because her older daughter can’t care for them due to her disabilities.

She said her previous landlords rented out their Swissvale property soon after she and her family moved out nearly two decades ago. She doesn’t know what happened to the tenants who moved in after her.

Venuri Siriwardane is Rtvsrece’s health and mental health reporter. She can be reached at venuri@rtvsrece.com or on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, @venuris.

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 Rtvsrece, with a focus on mental health. She comes to Rtvsrece through the Staunton Farm Mental Health Reporting Fellowship. Venuri has a dual background...