Some fear proposed ordinance change as headache to business

“Don’t use it as an excuse for crime and paint me with the brush of a slumlord.”

That was the sentiment of Ted Lyon and John Albarano II, two city landlords who spoke to the Sun-Gazette as City Council prepares to vote next month on Mayor Gabriel J. Campana’s request that a landlord-tenant provision be added to the city nuisance ordinance.

“Many of us transformed derelict buildings into Millionaire’s Row showpieces,” Lyon said.

“I’m not calling them slumlords,” Campana said. “Most of the landlords, such as Lyon and Albarano, are professional, but there are some who are negligent. That’s why I am bringing this ordinance forward.”

But Albarano said the ordinance would be a blanket covering landlords citywide without distinction between good and bad.

“If there are problem properties and dumps, fine, but don’t use the excuse of crime and throw it at all landlords,” Albarano said. “I’m tired of the mayor going after all landlords.”

Lyon and Albarano both said they’ve invested millions of dollars into their apartment buildings over the years, and the proposed ordinance would lump all landlords into the same pot.

According to the administration, the addition is meant to improve neighborhoods by having owners of properties and tenants register with the city codes office and provide forms of identification, including proper addresses and occupancies.

But Lyon said crime prevention is not the landlords’ role, and many of his tenants work for the gas industry and are here only for a few months at a time but paying good rents and keeping their properties tidy.

“The city must focus attention on where the problem properties are and not with the responsible landlords,” he said.

Without the ordinance, Campana said the administration’s hands are tied trying to improve neighborhoods.

“We want to save neighborhoods,” he said. “It is meant to reduce the number of sloppy properties by knowing where the owners live, and would protect neighborhoods by keeping transient tenants away.

“I need this ordinance to help reduce crime and let our city officials know where these slumlords operate and transients are dealing drugs,” Campana said.

“It’s a tool to aid police in ridding a criminal element,” claimed Councilman N. Clifford “Skip” Smith, chairman of the city public safety committee.

Another purpose Campana cites for amending the ordinance relates to the 2010 census, which he claims gave the city a lower population than actually exists.

“It is clear there are more than 29,304 individuals living in the city,” he said.

“I believe all individuals should be accountable to pay their fair share of taxes,” Campana said, adding that many state and federal grants are based on city population.

“If we show we have more than 29,304, the city would be eligible for more money from the government,” he said.

Councilman Jonathan Williamson, chairman of the city finance committee, said he can appreciate the part of the ordinance requiring that the identities of landlords be known, but he and councilmen Randall J. Allison and Don Noviello are concerned about the city being open to legal challenges.

Councilwoman Liz Miele declined comment on the mayor’s proposal until it goes before the committees.

“My first concern is to protect the privacy and liberty of individuals,” Williamson said. “If this is going to reduce crime, does it go too far in violating individuals’ rights?”

Williamson also questioned the effectiveness of the city hiring a codes officer to enforce landlord-tenant regulations.

“Is that the best use of taxpayer dollars?” he asked. “Is it really worth the city hiring a member of codes to track down whether people are registered?”

“Why put another law on the book if we can’t oversee it?” added Councilwoman Bonnie Katz.

Albarano also questions the crime prevention purpose.

“I don’t understand how this ordinance would reduce crime,” he said. “If someone is paying rent and I have an idea they are doing something criminal I can’t evict them based on assumption.”

He said landlords follow strict guidelines in a state law that spells out how to evict, and a landlord typically files with a district judge, who holds an evidentiary hearing to determine reasonable cause for an eviction.

“If they are found not guilty, they can sue the landlord for wrongful eviction,” he said.

Lyon said State College’s nuisance ordinance has a point system that adds up landlord infractions, and once a certain number of points is reached, the city can remove the landlord’s license to rent properties.

Police Capt. Timothy Miller said he believes most crimes are committed in rental properties and set out to prove that point by surveying 50 rentals. Of those, he said, there were 370 calls for police service.

“Two of the last four shootings involve an individual or individuals bouncing from rental to rental,” he said. “Police (also) seized eight firearms from three separate rentals in the survey.”

Council President Bill Hall said getting such surveys and information can be helpful before the council votes and commended Miller.

Codes administrator Joe Gerardi said his department has a three-strikes rule on code violators. If they get three violations in a year and don’t fix them, they are cited and the costs of enforcement is plugged into their fine, he said.

Gerardi noted the city is 60-percent rental properties and 40-percent owner-occupied homes.