Unhealthy housing may be subject of new Allegheny County committee

A resident of Hi View Gardens and her young son, seen through a gate, cross the main parking lot of the five-building McKeesport complex. The Allegheny County Health Department found 347 housing health code violations at Hi View and nearby Midtown Plaza from 2017 through 2020, and it collected $2,500 in penalties. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

In a reversal from past administrations, County Executive Sara Innamorato and the Board of Health plan to create a panel to look at housing health codes and enforcement.

by Venuri Siriwardane, PublicSource

The Allegheny County Health Department proposed the creation of a housing advisory committee on Wednesday — a move that signaled County Executive Sara Innamorato’s alignment with advocates who want more public oversight of healthy housing rules. 

The Health Department introduced the proposal before the county’s Board of Health, which voted unanimously to invite the public to comment on it during an as-yet-unspecified 30-day period. The proposal will then be moved to a vote, likely during the next board meeting in July, a county official told PublicSource. If approved, the committee will become effective Jan. 1, 2025. 

It’s a win for housing advocates, who pushed the department to create a housing advisory committee when it proposed changes last year to the county’s Houses and Community Environment regulation, known as Article VI. The code was updated for the first time in a quarter-century in March when health board members voted to approve the changes, but the creation of an advisory committee was off the table at the time. 

“One of the things that we heard loud and clear was the request for this housing advisory committee to be created,” Ed Nusser, the new director of housing strategy in the county executive’s office, told PublicSource. It’s the first of many steps “that can position the county to better protect the health and safety of some of our most vulnerable citizens — especially seniors and households with children.” 

Innamorato will appoint between nine and 15 people to the committee, who must then be confirmed by County Council. Each member will serve a term of no more than three years, according to the proposal. Those who want to apply can do so via this form.  

A woman wearing a hoodie with the words love is all you need.

Tacia Brentley at her Penn Hills home on March 5. Two of Brentley’s children developed lead poisoning after they used their housing voucher to move into a property in Swissvale two decades ago. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)   

The group will be composed of “a balance of representation” among housing stakeholders, including tenant advocates, academic experts, housing providers, landlord organizations and residents who have experienced housing challenges, Nusser said. Its structure and activities will closely mirror those of the department’s food safety and air quality advisory committees.

Two housing advocates worked with Nusser and the county executive’s office to craft the proposal: Kevin Quisenberry, litigation director of Community Justice Project, which provides legal aid to tenants, and County Councilor Michelle Naccarati-Chapkis, the executive director of Women for a Healthy Environment.   

The collaboration marks a swift reversal of the county’s previous hesitancy to adopt their suggestions. Under the leadership of former County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, Health Department staffers told Quisenberry and other advocates last summer that they would not be recommending the creation of a housing advisory committee. 

“We’re lucky now to have leadership in place that looks at this seriously and critically … and is moving forward with incorporating some of these ideas,” said Quisenberry, who described the committee as “a structured, permanent way for the community to directly engage with the housing and community environment program at the Health Department.”

In 2021, PublicSource 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. 

But at the March Board of Health meeting, Housing Program Manager Timothy Murphy doubled down on the complaint-driven nature of the department’s program. “We’re not looking to go out and pick on owners,” he told the board. 

“First of all, I’m happy to see this,” said Joylette Portlock, a board member and executive director of Sustainable Pittsburgh. “I’m happy it’s happening so close to the conversation we had last time.”


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