City officials explain what the ordinance will mean when it takes effect Sept. 1.

Last updated: August 24. 2013 11:40PM - 4144 Views
By - rdupuis@timesleader.com

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Read the ordinance at timesleader.com/assets/TL417810.pdf

WILKES-BARRE — What will the city’s amended “one-strike” rental ordinance mean for landlords?

Some landlords have expressed fear that uneven enforcement could result in owners of small properties bearing the brunt of legal changes that enable city officials to close down a rental unit for up to six months if “an occupant or owner has implied or actual knowledge” of drug activity or “any illegal or criminal action with a firearm.”

Just once. That’s all it would take for the city to close a property under the ordinance, which already allowed a six-month shutdown for cases of multiple code violations or nuisance reports, failure to meet health standards or failure to appoint a manager

And, the ordinance states, these powers apply to single rental units or an entire multiple-unit property.

That’s why some landlords want to know whether the law will be applied to large complexes, such as the troubled Sherman Hills properties off Coal Street, while others question what effect the shutdown of multiple properties could have on the livelihoods of landlords and the city’s economy.

Still others have asked how and why an ordinance that was introduced earlier this month so swiftly proceeded through two readings — the changes take effect Sept. 1 — and whether the amendment was subject to enough public and legal scrutiny.

The changes were unanimously approved during a special council session on Thursday night, which lasted less than an hour and at which only three members of the public spoke, out of about a dozen who attended. The Times Leader approached city officials on Friday seeking more information about the ordinance and how it will be enforced.

Emailed responses from Drew McLaughlin, the city’s municipal affairs manager, and Mayor Tom Leighton, are published below, in a question-and-answer format. The legal language, drafted by assistant city solicitor William E. Vinsko Jr., can be read at: http://timesleader.com/assets/TL417810.pdf

Who will determine which properties get shut down? Is it the code enforcement officer? Other city officials? How much investigation is expected before an order is issued?

McLaughlin: The Wilkes-Barre Police Department will be the primary enforcer of this ordinance. They will make the determination after completing an investigation of illegal activity at a property or charging an individual or individuals with narcotics or weapons offenses on the premises of a property.

Is there a body that will hear and/or arbitrate cases?

McLaughlin: Any appeals of a violation under this ordinance will go to the city’s Housing Appeals Board. Five citizens render a decision to uphold, reduce or reverse an action by the city under Chapter 7 of the city code. They meet monthly.

A key concern raised at Thursday night’s meeting was whether a large complex, such as Sherman Hills, could be closed. Given the number of incidents we have seen at Sherman Hills in recent years, is it possible that the entire complex or individual units could be closed? Same question for city housing complexes.

McLaughlin: Attorney Vinsko has previously noted that, in all cases, the city will seek to minimize collateral damage and make a decision based on the circumstances of the case. If only one unit is at fault, the unit will be shut down and not the entire complex. The city will take action within the confines of state and federal law.

Is there any estimate for how many properties could be closed in a year, for example? Is the city preparing for any particular number of cases?

McLaughlin: We can’t speculate on this. There is no way to determine how many weapons or narcotics offenses will be committed on the premises of a rental property in advance nor could we know now what the circumstances of those investigations and charges might be. This is a tool that can be used by law enforcement, but we would hope to use it as few times as possible.

Is there any estimate on whether enforcement of this provision could result in direct added costs, and if so, how much?

McLaughlin: There are no direct added costs to this legislation. No changes in manpower to enforce it properly. There is no administrative cost to the appeals board. They serve as volunteers and we already budget costs related to code enforcement or police officers testifying in an administrative court proceeding. If you’re referring to potential court challenges, again, we could not estimate costs to defend the law based on hypothetical challenges that have not materialized right now.

Was there any particular reason why this could not wait until the September meeting? Why the special meeting? What was the rush?

McLaughlin: The ordinance received unanimous support from City Council last week. By holding a special session of city council, this law will become effective Sept. 1 rather than Sept. 22 and thereby give our police officers an additional tool to combat crime in our neighborhoods earlier. For an issue of such importance, a three-week procedural delay was not warranted.

How does the mayor expect this will work? How does he think it will improve life in the city?

Leighton: We have to continue to evolve our methods to combat crime in our neighborhoods. Those who undermine our safety and security continue to change their means of operation and so must we. This is just another tool in the city’s arsenal but it is an important one. No one can deny that a significant portion of criminal incidents have occurred or were planned on the premises of rental properties in the city. We do not seek to punish good landlords but we will not turn a blind eye to those property owners who value profit above responsibility and who trade the security of their neighbors for the promise of a guaranteed rent check.

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