Permanent South Oakland resident Lizabeth Gray has watched a new crop of students move into her neighborhood surrounding Ophelia Street over the past seven years, and she is noticing a great improvement in the relationship between students and long-term residents. Pitt officials say they believe these improved relations are a result of new efforts to bridge gaps between Oakland residents.
Pitt’s Office of Community and Governmental Relations launched its first edition of the “Student Guide to Campus Life” during orientation week of the fall 2013 semester. At its launch, John Wilds, assistant vice chancellor of community relations, told The Pitt News that relationships between students and long-term residents are always a topic of discussion.
“Monday mornings I receive phone calls about student misbehavior and residents complaining about student actions,” Wilds said.
Since community groups and the Student Government Board worked to distribute 4,000 copies of the guide, the handbook has aimed to educate students on various aspects of off-campus living, such as how to be a good neighbor to fellow students and permanent residents of Oakland.
Kannu Sahni, director of community relations, said the Office of Community and Governmental Relations spearheaded three “Be a Good Neighbor” components: neighborhood block parties, the “Student Guide to Campus Life” and tenants’ rights workshops.
Wilds said the Office of Community and Governmental Relations identified three sites in North, South and Central Oakland where they had received the most complaints about excessive partying or littering to hold block parties.
The office hosted the three block parties last semester on Dithridge Street, Parkview Avenue and Lawn Street.
“We want to ameliorate some of the issues our neighbors are having with students,” Wilds said.
Both Sahni and Wilds said the block parties were a success in allowing some of the long-term neighbors and students to become better acquainted with one another. Wilds said the residents exchanged phone numbers so if there was ever a problem or complaint in the future, they would have someone to call.
Pat O’Donnell, 2013 president of Delta Chi fraternity, attended the block party on Dithridge Street on Sept. 19, 2013, with some of his fraternity brothers. O’Donnell said the party provided an opportunity to eat pizza, drink soda and mingle with neighbors and community leaders.
O’Donnell, a senior industrial engineering major, said he and his brothers have greatly benefited from meeting the neighbors and building relationships.
“It is often easy for non-university affiliates to generalize students as wholly disrespectful or ignorant, but this was a great opportunity to put a personal face on the overall student-community relationships for both parties,” O’Donnell said in an email.
Wilds said some of the students who attended the block parties even offered to shovel their neighbors’ driveways in the winter.
Gray, a freelance writer, said she noticed a difference in the relationship between the students and some of the residents after the block party.
“I have made a point of getting to know my neighbors,” Gray said. “But I think other residents are getting a bit more used to approaching students, as well.”
Gray said she believes the establishment of friendly neighbor relations is an ongoing process, but that things are headed in the right direction.
The “Student Guide to Campus Life” was made available to students at orientation and welcome back events, such as PittStart, block parties and Transfer Student Fridays. It was also available through the Office of Off-Campus Living last semester.
The guide is now available on the Office of Community and Governmental Relations website and provides students with information on how to find a safe place to live, research properties, plan a party, where to shop and who to call in an emergency.
“We wanted to provide a lot of information in a readable and short format,” Wilds said.
Wilds says the Office of Community and Governmental Relations will release another edition of the “Student Guide to Campus Life” in fall 2014, in which they plan to include expanded information regarding transportation.
Wilds also said the Office of Community and Governmental Relations is looking into adding information on Pittsburgh’s new “social host liability,” in which party hosts will be liable for anything that happens at their party, including underage drinking.
Gray said she has not had many issues with parties near her home this past year.
“Most of the [neighbors] will stick a note in my mailbox and let me know they are having a party, along with their cell number if I need to call about anything,” Gray said.
Gray said she believes that a bigger issue right now is that some students do not realize they have options if their landlords refuse to fix problems.
“If students have a problem and the landlords don’t do anything about it, they have the right to have the building inspector come in,” Gray said.
Wilds said the guide includes key information that will come in handy when students are looking for apartments. The guide advises students to make sure they are satisfied with apartments, landlord services, parking facilities and the overall security of the unit before signing a lease.
Sahni said a panel of landlords, community organizers, lawyers and representatives from the Office of Off-Campus Living addressed issues students often face when renting apartments at tenants’ rights workshops held in the William Pitt Union on Nov. 18 and 19.
According to Sahni, panel members spoke about the right to get rental deposits back from landlords, a right many students did not know they had.
Wilds said one of the reasons the panel and other initiatives were created is that the University is trying to get students active in the Oakland neighborhood and community organizations so they can understand issues within the community.
Sahni urged students to consider their relationships with their neighborhoods.
“I encourage students to also volunteer for something they are passionate about in their neighborhoods,” Sahni said. “It creates a greater sense of connection to the community.”