Pittsburgh's rental market has grown increasingly diverse in recent years, with apartments ranging from ridiculously pricey lofts to ridiculously cheap student flophouses. But wherever you live, as a renter there are three things you should know:
Know your rights
The federal Fair Housing Act prohibits landlords from discriminating against potential tenants based on race, religion, national origin, sex, family composition, age and disability. If you suspect that you were denied a rental apartment due to any of the above factors, file a complaint with the Fair Housing Partnership of Greater Pittsburgh, at 412-391-2535 or www.pittsburghfairhousing.org.
Pennsylvania law allows your landlord to require the first and last month's rent and a security deposit no greater than the monthly rent when you sign the lease. Beginning the second year of the lease, your landlord may not hold a security deposit greater than one month's rent and must deposit it in an escrow account.
Article 6 of Allegheny County Health Department regulations spells out what renters can legally demand landlords to provide in a dwelling. The full list of relevant regulations can be found at www.achd.net/housing/pubs/pdf/hrules.pdf. Key points include:
-- When a landlord is responsible for the heat, an apartment must be heated to at least 68 degrees Fahrenheit when the outside temperature is above 10 degrees Fahrenheit, and to 61 degrees Fahrenheit when the outside temperature drops below 10 degrees. The temperature requirement covers all habitable rooms, corridors and bathrooms. The heating season runs from Oct. 1 to May 31.
-- A smoke detector must be installed and maintained near every sleeping room and in every story inside an apartment unit, including basements and cellars.
-- Landlords are responsible for extermination of rodents and other pests only if more than one unit in a multi-family building is infested. Otherwise, you're on your own.
Know the real costs
If you're accustomed to housing costs in major metropolitan areas, rates in Pittsburgh seem like bargain heaven; rents here are about half what you'd pay in San Francisco.
Be mindful, however, that the city's housing stock ranks among the oldest in the nation. Many apartments have insufficient insulation, lack storm windows, or can be drafty. To avoid sticker shock when you see your first heating bill, be sure to ask the landlord about the utility costs -- and, if at all possible, talk to current tenants at well.
You might also check www.apartmentratings.com/rate/PA-Pittsburgh.html to see what others say about some of the larger apartment-rental companies in the area.
Utility costs are public information, although different gas and electric companies serve different parts of the city. Local utility companies also offer programs to defray energy costs for low-income tenants. If you're struggling with your bills, you can seek the help of the Dollar Energy Fund, at 800-683-7036.
Know who your friends are
Recent legislation has made it easier for utility companies to shut off service -- even in winter. But consumers still have some protections, especially if they are suffering economic hardship. If you're having trouble with utility service, or your service is being cut off, your best bet is to lodge a complaint with the state Office of the Consumer Advocate (1-800-684-6560).
If you cannot get the landlord to make repairs, call the county health department's housing division for help (412-350-4046), or file a complaint online: www.achd.net/admin/contact.php.
County health inspectors will issue citations for lack of heat and hot water, plumbing deficiencies, leaky roofs and rodent infestations, and require the landlord to fix any problems in breach of the county health code. (Watch out, though: Tenants can also be cited for problems for which they are responsible.)
Inspectors will return to make sure all that the cited violations are corrected. If not, the health department can levy a penalty or file a criminal complaint to address the problem.