Fifty years ago, Oakland was a thriving residential neighborhood that just happened to have a couple of universities. Though those tables have turned to the extreme, Oakwatch is looking to help restore balance.
A project of the Oakland Planning and Development Corporation, Oakwatch relies on neighborhood residents to document and report nuisance tenants, negligent property owners, excessive noise and housing violations through the city’s 311 line. Each month, the group brings residents together with their elected officials, building inspectors, public health professionals and police to tackle Oakland’s biggest problem properties one by one.
“It’s effective because of how collaborative it is,” says the OPDC’s Rebekkah Ranallo. “They all send representatives to our meeting each month and we use a top 10 list to focus each group’s limited resources. When something’s really egregious and the neighborhood decides it needs to be addressed, we work with our enforcement partners to solve it.”
In addition to a slew of volunteers, Oakwatch is comprised of representatives from the Allegheny County Health Department, Pittsburgh’s 311 center, the Bureau of Building Inspection, the Department of Public Works, the mayor’s office, city council, Pitt’s office of community and government relations and both city and university police, in addition to a pair of citizen co-chairs.
South Oakland resident Geof Becker has served as one of Oakwatch’s co-chairs since its inception in 2011, and he’ll readily admit to enjoying the finer points codes and standards. Whether they’re large problems like abandoned and decaying houses, or smaller, like the occasional wild college party, Becker says they quickly add up to affect the quality of life in a given neighborhood.
With rampant code violations, “there’s a fraying of the fabric that makes for a strong, effective neighborhood,” he says. “If you enforce them in a smart way, you can weave a social fabric that provides for a strong and vibrant neighborhood.”
According to its annual report released this week, Oakwatch did everything from reclaim a vacant lot which had been on its top 10 list for over two years to catching one of the area’s most negligent and wanted landlords. It aided in strengthening the city’s Disruptive Properties and Social Host ordinances, and helped reform the city’s street sweeping schedule.
“Code enforcement is like a garden,” Becker says. “You have to weed it regularly or weeds will overwhelm your flowers and vegetables. We see tangible improvements, absolutely. But it’s an ongoing process. We’ll never be done.”