Mayor to seek citywide tenant registration
A proposed landlord-tenant registration ordinance going before City Council next month is expected to spark debate over privacy and whether government can force those signing leases and those who provide rental units to register their names and addresses at City Hall.
Mayor Gabriel J. Campana says the proposed law would give guidelines to landlords and tenants and assist emergency personnel, including police officers, firefighters and codes officials.
But privacy advocates claim it may be uneasy for those who have gone through domestic abuse and perhaps may be unconstitutional to make someone sign his or her name or address for a stranger in government.
“We’re in an age when there is no privacy any more and someone savvy enough or who pays a small fee can access data on most people,” said police Capt. Timothy Miller, who has been asked by Campana to research case law in preparation for the presentation to council committees.
It is likely the ordinance first will be seen by council’s public safety committee.
“Nobody questions the motives when bankers ask for private and personal records from prospective homeowners applying for loans or refinancing mortgages,” Miller said.
“The mayor may not be as secure as a bank,” said Marycatherine Roper, senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union in Philadelphia. “The difference is, you have a choice if you want to buy a home. You don’t have a choice if you want to live in this municipality as to whether you give information to this municipality.
“We have had problems with tenant registration ordinances in the past. The trouble has been for requirements of victims of domestic violence and others who have reason not to want their names or addresses listed,” she said.
“Victims of domestic abuse and their advocates can be assured that unstable people will not have access to information,” Campana said. “I am confident the legislation brought forth will be constitutional.”
Examples of proof of identification could be a Social Security number, driver’s license, passport or birth certificate.
“It’s no different than what the Department of Public Welfare requires when someone applies for public assistance,” Miller said.
Campana also believes the law will prevent those individuals with a propensity to commit crimes or have a criminal record from leasing.
Council may not have viewed the proposed law, but the vetting process has begun.
‘A huge bureaucracy’
“Until I see it, my gut sense is, it’s a huge bureaucracy to put in place,” said Council President Bill Hall. “To track people down in terms of where they are living in rental properties would be a huge undertaking.”
“I appreciate the lengths to address privacy issues and the initial concerns brought up by landlords,” Councilman Randall J. Allison said.
“We have seen similar ordinances in cities across the state that have faced legal challenges in various levels of the courts,” Councilman Don Noviello said. “As always, I say, ‘The devil remains in the details,’ but we have seen abuses by landlords and I believe it can benefit the city in terms of police protection, neighborhood improvement and tax collection.”
Councilwoman Bonnie Katz supports efforts to more accurately count those who need to pay taxes.
“I have reviewed similar ordinances in Sunbury and Berwick,” she said.
Miller anticipates legal challenges other than privacy matters. He said the state Superior Court decided in Berwick who was responsible for disorderly tenants’ behavior – the tenants or the landlords.
“Tenants were to be cited, not the landlords, for bad behavior of those who rent, but landlords were responsible for maintaining properties and assuring tenants are not destructive to property.
“The judges ruled (that) landlords can’t stand in the shoes of tenants,” Miller said.
Miller said these and other issues are sure to arise and that is why he is working with a local attorney on the proposed ordinance.
“Today, we can go five times to a report of a problem tenant, and each time, if they pay the citations, they can start their bad behavior all over again,” Miller said.
Under the regulations, when tenants receive a lease, they will get a copy of the rules and regulations so they can’t claim they have no knowledge of it, Miller said.
Councilman Jonathan Williamson, Councilwoman Liz Miele and Councilman N. Clifford “Skip” Smith, chairman of the public safety committee, declined comment before they get a look at the proposed ordinance.