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Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Sign Language: City passes property-owner shaming bill — over Burgess' objections

Posted By on Tue, Dec 11, 2012 at 3:26 PM

Earlier today, a measure to embarrass property owners who neglect their buildings sailed through city council. But not without an effort by one councilor, Ricky Burgess, to do some shaming of his own.

Proposed by Bill Peduto, the measure requires city building inspectors to compile a list of the city's 10 most blighted properties, as determined by building-code citations and Housing Court convictions. Unless property owners stepped up their game, the city would post signage outside the building in question, identifying it as a top 10 blighted property, and providing address information for the owner. Such public-shaming measures are called "scarlet letter" bills ... but this one had Burgess seeing red.

Burgess' District 9 contains some of the city's highest concentration of blight. He's also frequently tussled with Peduto, and such battles have now taken on an additional resonance: Peduto is preparing for a mayoral run next spring against Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, who Burgess is often allied with. Today, Burgess had a series of objections to the bill. During impassioned remarks, he cited legal arguments objecting to such remedies, and noted that the city had tried a similar measure back in the late 1990s — to little effect. In fact, Burgess said, one of those signs is still up ... in front of a property that is still falling apart."

redsign.jpg

The sign went up in February 1998, and "is still standing in a community filled with vacant houses," Burgess said. And that, he said, was because the sign's real message was "Don't do business on this block. Don't do business in this community ... What it shames is the neighborhood."

Of course, a blighted building can often be its own bad advertisement — and one that can be far more visible than a sign. But Burgess' major argument was that, in trying to shame property owners, Peduto's bill would serve to stigmatize tenants living inside. The bill was a "misguided and hardhearted" proposal, he said — one that would "put a red sign up in front of a family that is struggling" and that "has no control over" the state of a property they rent.

"Every red sign is really a sign saying, 'Shame on you, Councilor Peduto,'" Burgess thundered.

In fact, the bill did include a provision for giving "consideration" to building tenants who didn't want such signage outside their home. But Peduto didn't respond to Burgess' attacks: Instead, he mostly maintained the studied silence of a man who has The Votes. Indeed, the measure passed 7-1 (with Patrick Dowd absent) — a more comfortable margin than it earned during a preliminary vote last week. One key reason for the lopsided outcome: Natalia Rudiak offered up amendments that — when augmented by a change recommended by Daniel Lavelle — gave councilors the power to veto the placement of a sign in their district and allowed signs to be posted at the property owner's home itself instead (provided the owner lived within the city at a separate address).

Those changes helped garner the support of Lavelle, who'd previously abstained, and President Darlene Harris. Lavelle pledged that, within his own district, he would only allow signs to be posted at the homes of actual property owners. Theresa Kail-Smith, who like Burgess is part of a pro-mayor faction on council and thus often opposed to Peduto, sympathized with Burgess' concerns, but voted for the bills. "We have to continue to put tools forward" to address blight, she said. "The residents just want something done."

The impact of the bill, as amended, remains to be seen. But in any case, Peduto can expect an intensification of Burgess' already-practiced efforts at attacking him on issues of class. Burgess promised he'd be bringing forward "responsible and useful legislation" to address blight, rather than "something that's only symbolic." Poor communities, he added, "need investment, not scarlet letters."

Burgess has issued such pledges before — promising to bring up a long-neglected "living wage" bill after Peduto and others backed a more limited ordinance, for example. So far, those efforts have gained little traction. But I expect Peduto hasn't heard the last of such challenges.

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