Government
11:55 pm
Tue November 13, 2012

Councilman Proposes 'Scarlet Letter' for Absentee Landlords

One Pittsburgh City Councilman has proposed a unique solution to force landlords into fixing up blighted properties — "old-fashioned shame."

Councilman Bill Peduto has introduced a bill that would authorize the Bureau of Building Inspection to put large red signs in front of the ten worst properties in the city, based on Housing Court convictions and building code violations. The signs would be slightly larger than stop signs, and would list the landlord's name, home address, and phone number.

Peduto said the city actually ran a pilot program of "Operation Red" in 1998, based on a similar law in a Massachusetts town. He said the program was entirely effective in pushing five Pittsburgh property owners to fix the problems that earned them "scarlet letters."

"It uses public pressure," said Peduto. "It allows the community to nominate properties. At no time does the city have more than ten, so it's very manageable, and the building inspector chief is also able to select those that have multiple violations, that have gone through the court system, that have ignored the court orders."

Peduto said the program would be particularly effective against landlords who live far away and may feel they're "immune" to local convictions and citations, "especially if they've been able to go through years and years before the court systems, and have found that by ignoring it, they get to, in their mind, win. Now, there's going to be a light that's going to be shining, and it's going to say where they live. Neighbors in the community that drive by can call them on their home phone and ask them when they're going to fix that problem."

In order to nominate a property in disrepair, citizens would have to petition their neighborhood, then submit the gathered signatures to the Bureau of Building Inspection for consideration.

In addition to the bright red signs, Pittsburgh would also post the "Top Ten Worst Landlords" on its website and cable TV channel.

Peduto said he doesn't foresee any legal issues regarding the public posting of personal information.

"It's information that's taken directly out of the court cases," said Peduto. "They had due process. They were notified. There's even a notification period between the time that we tell them we're going to put the sign up and for them to fix the problems."

The bill is up for a preliminary vote on Wednesday.