Penn Plaza

Penn Plaza

Jasmine Goldband / The Incline

Pittsburgh’s Human Relations commission wants to add protections for more discrimination whistleblowers

Currently, the Pittsburgh code only provides retaliation protections for people with employment complaints.

Sarah Anne Hughes

Update: April 19, 11:26 a.m.

Both bills passed Pittsburgh City Council unanimously. They now go to Mayor Bill Peduto for signatures.

Original post

The Pittsburgh commission tasked with investigating complaints related to employment, housing and public accommodation discrimination wants City Council to add protections for more people who come forward with issues.

Two ordinances introduced to Council this week would change the Pittsburgh Code to provide protections for people who lodge complaints related to housing or public accommodation discrimination. Currently, the code only provides these protections for employment discrimination.

Executive Director Carlos Torres said the Commission on Human Relations advanced these changes in order for protections to be consistent across the three areas the body enforces. Pittsburgh law prohibits discrimination based on more than a dozen factors, including race, sexual orientation and disabilities.

“The housing and the public accommodation [sections of the code] did not provide protections for people who might oppose a practice or may testify in one of our investigations,” Torres said. “We wanted to make sure those individuals’ rights are also protected.”

According to Torres, penalties “related to retaliation vary depending on the severity” and range from training and oversight by the commission to a requirement that the offending party change its policies or practices.

By far, employment complaints to the Human Relations commission are the most common. The commission closed 39 of those cases in 2016 and had 68 pending as of Jan. 1. By comparison, the commission closed nine housing and seven public accommodations complaints last year and had six of each type pending at the beginning of 2017.

But just because these types of discrimination aren’t reported doesn’t mean they’re not happening. As the commission says on its site, “discrimination is rarely obvious.” That’s why Torres wants to encourage members of the public with concerns to attend the commission’s once-a-month public meetings.

“Our goal is to prevent discrimination from happening,” Torres said. By bringing issues forward, “we can intervene at the earliest point possible and hopefully prevent it from happening.”

The Commission on Human Relations is also working on one of the most pressing issues facing the city: preserving and creating affordable housing. The group’s Fair Housing Task Force is in the process of identifying policies or practices to recommend to the city in order to ensure that all residents at any income level have safe housing in the neighborhood of their choice, Torres said. He expects the task force to share its recommendations in spring 2018.

Torres has also weighed in on the redevelopment of Penn Plaza, the city’s most high-profile affordable housing case. After a December meeting of the City Planning Commission, Torres released a statement reminding the group of its fair housing obligations when considering projects like the one that would replace the East Liberty buildings with a mixed-use development featuring market-rate housing.

“All development plans with a housing component must take into account whether the housing will effectively be made available to members of protected classes, not only in theory, but intentionally,” Torres said in a statement.

Helen Gerhardt, who’s a member of the commission and a housing organizer, told The Incline last week that Pittsburgh is not currently living up to fair housing requirements and could begin by purchasing the remaining Penn Plaza building and converting the units into affordable housing.

Advocates and Mayor Bill Peduto are expected to discuss the feasibility of such a proposal this week.

In February, Peduto signed a number of executive orders based on the work of the Affordable Housing Task Force, which found that the city lacks more than 17,000 affordable rental units needed for low-income households. City Council last year also approved the creation of an affordable housing trust fund, but has yet to settle on a funding mechanism.

Councilman Daniel Lavelle, who introduced the legislation, said last week that conversations with the mayor’s administration and other members continue, but didn’t offer an estimate of when Council will publicly consider a funding source.