Q & A with Maura Kennedy, Pittsburgh chief of building inspection, on blight

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     File image of a log house built between 1822 and 1830, in the Lawrenceville neighborhood of Pittsburgh that was demolished in 2011. Attempts were made to preserve the logs for possible reuse. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

    File image of a log house built between 1822 and 1830, in the Lawrenceville neighborhood of Pittsburgh that was demolished in 2011. Attempts were made to preserve the logs for possible reuse. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

    Maura Kennedy is Pittsburgh’s new Bureau of Building Inspection Chief. She came to Pittsburgh four months ago and has big plans.

    Maura Kennedy is Pittsburgh’s new Bureau of Building Inspection Chief. She came to the job four months ago from Philadelphia, where she led a strategic building code enforcement campaign targeting the city’s many blighted properties. Keystone Crossroads’ Irina Zhorov spoke with her about her experience in Philadelphia and her plans for Pittsburgh.

    Could you tell me just briefly what tools you used in Philadelphia to carry forward your blight initiatives there?

    Sure. We used a combination of a state law – Act 90 – which gave us a lot of increased authority to go after owners across state lines and actually attach some of the fines that we were able to levy for blight under local law to people’s personal assets. So we really actually brought the problem to their door even if they weren’t living in the city. And we had a local ordinance on the books called the ‘Doors and Windows’ ordinance that said if you did not have operable doors and windows in your building then we could ask the court to fine you up to $300 per day per non-working ordinance, which can get pretty expensive pretty fast.

    I heard you speak before and you made it very clear that it was a take-no-pity approach. Can you talk a little bit about why that was important and whether you also worked with property owners when they were clearly struggling to maintain their property?

    To be clear, these are vacant, abandoned properties. These are not owner-occupied properties. We want to be very helpful to citizens who are living in their homes and struggling to maintain them, that’s a different population, and I’m very sympathetic to that. But these are vacant, blighted properties where the owner’s not living there but they’re causing tremendous harm to the residents that are living on that block. So we really wanted to say to them, ‘hey, if you own property, you need to take care of it, full story.’

    When you left Philadelphia, what could you report as the results of this initiative?

    It resulted in more than $1 million in direct revenue in terms of increased permits and licenses. And it resulted in $74 million in increased property values and more than $4 million in increased real estate taxes just on the properties that were impacted alone. And we also worked with some epidemiologists at Penn Medicine to show that it had a tremendous decrease in violent crimes in the communities. So it really was a win-win.

    And for context, we spent about $300,000 on administering this program. So, talk about ROI. This had huge economic and health impacts in the city for very little cost.

    So you’ve been in Pittsburgh for about four months now. Broadly speaking, what are your goals for this city?

    I think that Pittsburgh faces a similar set of problems. Right now, we’re fixing the fundamentals, reviewing our inspection process, and working on our procedures internally. But I hope to do the same innovative type of code enforcement.

    Pittsburgh is a smaller city, we have fewer blighted properties. Are there other challenges though that maybe you didn’t have in Philadelphia?

    I think one interesting part of working in Pittsburgh is the topography. I think it’s been a real asset to the city to have changes in elevation and rivers, I think it’s really been helpful in terms of keeping commercial corridors intact in neighborhoods, which I think has been…is great. There are a lot of great structures here to rehab. But I think it will be an interesting challenge to sort of see how development flows between communities when there [are] changes in elevation and rivers separating them.

    Are there any additional jurisdictional issues out here that you didn’t have in Philadelphia?

    Philly is both a city and a county in one, so we had a different court structure. Here, Pittsburgh is a part of Allegheny County. I think everyone realizes that vacant blighted land is a significant problem in Allegheny County, and I’m hopeful that everyone will come together to address it.

    Your department if sort of notoriously low-tech, or it has been at least. So I’m wondering, do you have the data you need to carry through some of these projects?

    One of the keys in Philadelphia was that we were able to pull together very large sophisticated data sets, so we could really choose what tool would work the best in what types of property. We were very strategic about our resource use. You’re right, we need to improve our data management system and digitize our records more comprehensively. That’s the first step in making this happen and that’s where we are right now.

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