By Nick Keppler
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
Sheila Ali sits at a table in her backyard, clutching a folder labeled “city fuckers.” It’s stuffed with building code citations and letters from city officials concerning the small house she owns on a back street in Shadyside. She’s waiting for another visit from an inspector from the Department of Permits, Inspections, and Licenses. She wears pajama pants and clutches a coffee cup.
In the last ten months, DPIL has cited her for rust and deterioration of a metal fence that enclosed her backyard, loose bricks around her windows, leaky gutters and roof space and overgrown vines. An avid gardener, Ali has grown ivy that clings to the brick exterior, including a thick mane of it extending from her front porch.
She has done all the repairs on the house, which she’s owned since 2006, herself. “If I didn’t, I would put myself in some major credit card debt,” says Ali, a visual artist and director of the Irma Freeman Center for Imagination on Penn Avenue’s gallery row. A ladder leans against the house and a stack of spare bricks sit in the yard, next to her accumulation of potted shrubs and plants.
“I feel like I am doing this with a gun to my head,” she says.
Although the city is pressing Ali, the ordeal started with a dispute with a powerful neighbor. Almost all of Pierce Street is owned and rented out by Standard Realty, which acquired row houses over the years. Ali and her brother Robbie are the only holdouts from the era of low-income families. The rest of the street now has a jarring uniformity: Every house has the same concrete porch, black front door, and font spelling out its house number. Decorations are limited to a single wreath or flower box. Sheila Ali’s house stands out, with its orange-painted window frames and free-flowing garden projects.
Ali’s vines were apparently a bother to Tom Seabrook, owner of Standard Realty, so he made a report through the city’s 311 tip line, which begat the other citations. Almost all code inspections of residential properties in Pittsburgh originate with a complaint, according to DPLI spokesperson Sally Stadelman.
The city implemented the 311 system in 2006, allowing residents to anonymously report nonemergency issues — from potholes to street light outages to blighted buildings — and get them funneled to city bureaus and departments. In areas fraught with development and gentrification issues, the building code has been used as a bludgeon against homeowners amidst neighborhood disputes.
Sheila Ali admits she’s been abrasive towards Standard Realty as it assimilated the block. She and her brother have had run-ins with the company’s employees over issues like dumpsters and construction material. She has suspected (for obvious reasons) Seabrook has wanted to buy her house. Years ago, she saw him on Pierce and told him bluntly, “My name is Sheila Ali and you will never own my house.”
Their current dispute could have been resolved by a pair of pruning shears.
In an interview, Seabrook said he made a report about vines extending from Ali’s porch because they reached a gas meter on one of his properties. He also said he contacted Robbie Ali, who has been more amenable to Standard Realty, to resolve the issue before contacting the city. Both Ali siblings dispute this narrative, saying a citation was their first notice Seabrook, or anyone for that matter, had a problem with the vines.
Ali cut the plants, removed the fence and — ever an artist — redid the bricks framing the windows with shards of glass and porcelain to make mosaics. The inspector said the house was in compliance.
Still, she feels anxious. “When you’re poor in a neighborhood like this, you always feel like you can be pushed over,” she said.
After decades of stagnation, home prices in hot Pittsburgh zip codes have doubled or tripled in the last ten years. Executives at neighborhood groups in these desirable zip codes have noticed an uptick in building code violations that have coincided with disputes pitting developers and affluent newcomers against longtime residents.
David Breingan, executive director of Lawrenceville United, said the organization’s objectives in terms of code enforcers have shifted . “Ten years ago, we were trying to deal with problems with blight,” he said. “We were trying to get absentee landlords to repair their properties. It’s almost over-corrected. People are cited for minor issues that are not threats to the community’s quality of life.”
Rick Swartz, executive director of the Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation, said that the system is being used by developers to “apply the screws” to homeowners. “Maybe it’s time that DPLI inspectors are told who authored the complaint in the first place,” he added.
Maura Kennedy, director of DPLI, said inspectors should not make a “value judgement” on a tipster. If there is a complaint, they investigate it. “We’re not picking winners and losers,” she said. “Having a home that is not fixed is not a win to anyone.” Kennedy added that the city has resources for homeowners who struggle to afford repairs.
Stadelman, the department spokesperson, added that the department has a hands-off policy on properties that are not the subject of complaints. “If there are high weeds on a house, maybe people in that neighborhood know that person has been sick,” she said.
However, this makes the system a weapon for individuals involved in neighborhood feuds.
Christopher Gates and Stephen Pascal are a New York City couple who hoped to find a quieter life on Pittsburgh’s North Side. Their path has been unconventional. They now have four homes on the North Side, deliberating about which to fix up as their permanent residence and which to sell off as they split time between Pittsburgh and New York, according to Gates.
Before they’ve fully moved in permantly, they’ve alienated many of their neighbors.
“We’ve been very outspoken at board and commission meetings,” said Gates. He’s gone door to door to enlist neighbors against an illuminated sign proposed for Allegheny General Hospital and he filed several complaints against venues, for supposed alcohol and occupancy capacity violations, during the Deutschtown Music Festival.
They are fixtures at Zoning Board meetings, filing complaints and appeals on developments. One particularly earned the animosity of neighbors. The city has long attempted to implement some new development at the vacant site of the Garden Theater, a movie house built in 1915 that had a late-life stint as a porn theater. The Urban Redevelopment Authority bought it in 2007 and since then several proposals have fallen through. Pascal is one party in a lawsuit to block the demolition of the complex, helping to delay a redevelopment many support and have long awaited.
In August 2018, a poster in a Facebook group called Allegheny City Central and Mexican War Streets encouraged residents to make 311 complaints of supposed code violations on their properties, claiming they “are in various levels of disrepair and dilapidation.”
“The owners are also the ones responsible for halting the work on the Garden Theater and various other projects on East Ohio,” she added. “Any help reporting these issues would be appreciated.” (When contacted, the poster said she “just wanted the community to be aware of the dilapidated properties.”)
One member replied that “it doesn’t seem appropriate to recruit other people in the neighborhood to harass them.” But many in the group piled on, agreeing to call 311 on the properties.
They were cited for various reasons, said Gates, and some of the code violations may have been “legitimate” but inspectors were “incentivized” by a “witch hunt and a hate campaign,” he said.
However, they didn’t take from the experience that anonymous complaints shouldn’t be utilized like this. Instead, they started making 311 complaints about their neighbors as part of a legal strategy to create evidence of selective enforcement, said Gates.
“There was a string of residential code violations starting a year ago after they attended housing court,” said Gina Grone, president of the East Allegheny Community Council. Her home was one, she said; an inspector found that her fence, formerly never a bother to anyone, was past the property line.
“I think they are retaliating against being retaliated against,” said Grone. “It’s a mix of retaliation, of being a victim, obstructionism and power play.”
Gates said he feels no remorse if some random North Sider who never feuded with him or his partner is cited because of this campaign. “I feel that it has exceptional seething rage just under the surface [of the North Side],” he said, “and that any citizen enacting their legal right to have a voice triggers such latent fury that these people are making some of the dumbest choices I have ever seen anywhere.”
Despite this attitude, Gates said he and Pascal are still committed to settling in the neighborhood someday and continuing to press the courts and city bureaucracy to their own ends.
Lawrenceville is arguably the neighborhood most strained by change. A magnet for tech employees and Pittsburgh’s nuevo upper class, average home price boomed from $71,000 to $219,000 in a decade, according to Zillow. Tight streets, built for row houses, are cluttered by construction vehicles and industrial waste bins. Century-old houses stand next to new builds listed for as much as $740,000.
One such dichotomy sits on Keystone Street. A three-bedroom house of neat modernist geometrical shapes, priced at $695,000, sticks out next to the homes of brick and vinyl siding. All summer contractors hired by Blinov Construction worked on it.
It was a contentious summer by all accounts. Sharon Dawson, who has lived all her 62 years on the house next to the new construction, said workers cluttered the street with construction materials and knocked off parts of her siding. The new siding and a palette of building materials were visible on a recent day. “This is what I have to put up with,” said Dawson.
Melissa Washington, who lives on the other side of Dawson’s home, said construction noise woke her in the mornings and workers accosted drivers who parked near the site. “There was a sense of entitlement of the whole street,” she said.
Ivan Blinov, owner of the firm, said the neighbors were the aggressors. “I’ve been nice to them since day one but I want nice normal conversation,” he said. “From day one, there was nothing but yelling from them.”
There was one particularly nasty confrontation between Dawson’s son Christopher and a construction worker over the placement of a car. A screaming match ensued. According to Washington and Christopher Dawson, one worker called Dawson, who is gay, a slur.
Three days later, Sharon Dawson received a PDLI citation about a 20-year-old wooden fence on her property that apparently straddled the property line.
Blinov said it’s conceivable a worker reported her. He uses subcontractors and did not directly employ anyone at the site.
Now Dawson faces another issue. Blinov’s workers put iron fences between the two properties, blocking Dawson from a side of her own home. “If there was something wrong with my foundation or I wanted to work on my siding, what would I do?” she asks.
Blinov said, “She could just ask us or the new owners.”
With tensions high and animosity built up over a battle that echoes the conflict at the heart of Lawrenceville, Dawson said a neighbor-to-neighbor solution seems impossible.
She called a DPLI inspector.