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Pittsburgh councilman suggests advertising names of blighted properties' owners

| Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2012, 10:28 a.m.

City Councilman Bill Peduto wants to post the names and phone numbers of people who own dilapidated properties on signs around Pittsburgh.

Calling his legislation Operation Red, Peduto said on Tuesday he's using the “scarlet letter approach” in pressuring owners to fix the most blighted properties because state law limits the city's ability to seize property, and the courts take too long to rule on those cases.

“Operation Red isn't going to solve the problem,” Peduto said. “This just addresses one part of it.”

Under the bill, the Bureau of Building Inspection would develop a list of the worst 10 owners based on citations and convictions for building code violations. The Department of Public Works would erect signs featuring owners' names, addresses and telephone numbers in public rights of way near their properties. Mayor Luke Ravenstahl said he would consider supporting the legislation.

“We're talking about properties where landlords are making money, and they're bringing the neighborhood down in the process,” Peduto said.

In 1998, the city conducted a similar program and targeted five properties. All five cases were resolved by owners fixing the problem or selling the property, or by the city demolishing the structure, Peduto said.

Mary C. Fleming, the inspections bureau's assistant chief of code enforcement, doesn't recall the signs making much difference. She doesn't believe Peduto's bill will, either.

“The idea was to shame people,” she said. “You know how shame works now. It just doesn't.”

Peduto said state law allows the city to take a property only if taxes go unpaid or a dangerous condition exists. In the latter, the city can condemn and demolish the structure, Fleming said.

About 12 percent of the 180,000 residential parcels in Pittsburgh are considered blighted, which includes vacant land, according to Bethany Davidson, deputy director of the Pittsburgh Community Reinvestment Group, which works with neighborhood groups to eliminate blight. She said the city condemnation list typically contains 1,300 to 1,500 properties. The city has budgeted $3 million for property demolitions in 2013.

Peduto said district judges are behind on hearing cases involving code violations and other blight issues. Common Pleas Judge Donna Jo McDaniel, who as president judge for Allegheny County oversees the district judges, did not return a call.

Rick Swartz, executive director of the Bloomfield-Garfield Corp., said the community organization has been identifying good and bad landlords in its monthly newsletter for years.

About 50 percent of 100 negligent property owners listed to date corrected the problems, Swartz said. He said about one-third of the remaining 50 properties were demolished. Swartz said Peduto's bill is worth exploring.

“In the cases of the more egregious owners who are kind of pretty much exploiting the situation, maybe we should give it a try,” he said.

Bob Bauder is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-765-2312 or bbauder@tribweb.com.

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