Plymouth ordinance would make landlords accountable
Last Modified: April 16. 2013 3:45PM
PLYMOUTH – Even before the July 7 fatal shootings during a drug deal inside an apartment on First Street, officials were working on a landlord-tenant ordinance in the borough where renters nearly equal the number of homeowners.
Borough council has been reviewing ordinances from other municipalities and fashioning its own, picking and choosing the best items from them.
“It has to help,” said Plymouth Mayor Dorothy Petrosky.
The borough has a large number of rental properties. Tenants span the occupancy spectrum from weeks to years, and without an ordinance requiring registration of tenants the borough has no idea whom they are.
“It behooves us to know,” said the mayor.
For proponents, the ordinances go a long way toward eliminating nuisance properties and problems associated with them.
But for at least one property manager, they go after the wrong people, holding a third party accountable for the actions of others.
“You got to hold the responsible party responsible, not the most responsible person,” said Jim Straub, who manages 54 properties in three municipalities with ordinances.
Among leader in renters
The shootings the night of July 7 that left three people dead and a fourth in critical condition occurred in what Petrosky described as a nice neighborhood with a mix of single family houses and apartments. The building where the shooting occurred had several apartments.
The most recent housing data from the 2010 Census showed a total of 3,140 housing units in the West Side borough with a total population of 5,951.
Of the total units, 2,575 were occupied. Of that, 1,360 or 53 percent were owner-occupied compared to 1,215 or 47 percent renter-occupied.
There were 3,158 residents in the owner-occupied units and 2,785 living in the renter-occupied units.
“We’re one of the leaders in renters,” said Frank Coughlin, president of Plymouth council.
In the past, young people left to get an education and did not return to live and work in the borough, he explained.
When their elderly parents died the children did not want the family homesteads and sold them, sometimes to out-of-town buyers who neglected the properties and did not care whom they rented to, he added.
Coughlin’s been the point man on the borough’s planned ordinance for more than a year. He said he routinely looks at ordinances in an effort to update them.
“The first time I think I discussed this at council was April 2011,” he said, to dispel any talk the ordinance was done in haste in reaction to the shootings.
Drafting the ordinance
Plymouth has an ordinance imposing a $25 fee on landlords for an occupancy permit when someone moves into a rental unit.
After looking at landlord tenant ordinances from Kingston, Forty Fort and Edwardsville and from around the state, Coughlin said he picked what were the best points from them and conferred with borough solicitor Mike Kostelansky on drafting the ordinance.
It’s expected to be presented at the Aug. 14 council meeting for a vote so something can be on the books, he said. Amendments can be made as needed.
“This ordinance isn’t going to stop everything,” Coughlin said.
Straub, who manages properties for his Kingston-based company Dream Rentals, viewed the ordinances as well intentioned, but misdirected.
“We’re business people,” he said of others like him.
He compared the ordinances to going after the gas station where a person filled up their car and then drove it to rob a bank.
“I think most of these places that pass these laws, it gives them a good feeling they’re doing something,” Straub said.
Sure there are bad landlords, he said, but “more so there are inexperienced landlords.”
He acknowledged seeing changes in the Wyoming Valley over the years as a manager.
“There’s a lot more things you have to worry about,” he said.
He said he screens tenants, does credit checks and doesn’t rent to anyone who’s been evicted.
Going a step further than some ordinances, he said, “I work on two strikes you’re out.”
Instead of coming down on landlords, the towns should work with them to solve problems, he said.
“It’s a tough racket. I sympathize with these towns,” he said.
Coughlin saw it differently.
If the manager or landlord did the right thing, “why should you have a problem?” he asked.
The borough’s ordinance would require landlords to register the number of rental units and the number of occupants in each one. The names will be kept on file with the borough.
Coughlin said he couldn’t answer how the planned ordinance would have made a difference in the case of the shootings. But the borough would have the names of the person or people supposed to be living there.
“At least we would know if there should be five people or 25 people or if it just didn’t match up,” he said.
Plymouth’s ordinance lacks the “three-strikes” language contained within the Forty Fort ordinance for intolerable behavior committed by tenants, including actions that result in citations, fines and warnings by the code enforcement, police and fire departments.
In Forty Fort landlords must report the behavior to borough officials and include a clause in their agreements with tenants spelling out that after “three-strikes” it leads to “immediate eviction proceedings.”
Coughlin said the Plymouth ordinance is more like Kingston’s which directs landlords to use all legal means to evict tenants who “routinely engage in disorderly conduct, disturb the public peace, create excessive noise or violate” the states criminal laws relating to dealing drugs three or more times within a 60-day period or more than eight times in a consecutive 12-month time frame.
“We’ve successfully used that eight times,” said Paul Keating, Kingston’s municipal administrator.
Kingston enacted its ordinance in September 2010 to ensure everyone required to do so paid the 1.999 percent earned income tax and to make sure landlords maintained their properties and their tenants were good neighbors.
Some landlords have complained about the $25 charged for an occupancy license for each unit and inquired what the borough does with the money, Keating said.
The borough has hired two code enforcement officers since enacting the ordinance and each month issues letters and citations to property owners, said Keating.
Keating said he, Mayor James Haggerty and the solicitor are going to review the ordinance, look at its effectiveness and identify weaknesses and take the changes to council for consideration.
Keating likened the ordinance to any tool used by the municipality to deal with issues.
“It’s necessary any more with the increase in the amount of transient residents that pass through our area,” said Keating. “Crime, decay and problems do not have political boundaries.”
• Kingston: Ordinance directs landlords to use all legal means to evict tenants “who routinely engage in disorderly conduct, disturb the public peace, create excessive noise, or violate those criminal laws of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania relating to the illegal distribution of drugs.”
• Forty Fort: Ordinance sets a “three-strike” limit as a trigger for eviction of renters who engage in “intolerable behavior” defined as an action that “results in either a warning, citation, fine or the like” from the code enforcement officer and/or a police officer and a response from the fire department for “a man-made action, such as arson, accidental fire, etc.”
• Wilkes-Barre: Ordinance defines “disruptive conduct” by a renter or a visitor of regulated rental-unit as behavior “that is in violation of existing ordinances of the City of Wilkes-Barre or the statutes of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.” It’s applicable under the ordinance if a citation or criminal complaint is successfully prosecuted by police or a guilty plea is entered before a district justice. If there are three violations within a license year, code enforcement shall direct the property owner to evict the renter.