Rental law goes forward

A proposed city rental ordinance, meant to combat drug and firearms crimes and improve neighborhood quality by monitoring who’s living in rental properties, took a first step Tuesday.

Feeling the heat of a city under a siege of crime, including a reported rise in thefts, shootings and violence, statistical information shared at the city public safety committee meeting, the committee moved the proposed rental ordinance on to the full council, but without a specific recommendation. Council is expected to take up the issue Oct. 10.

As proposed, the ordinance includes registration requirements, penalties and a proposed appeals board.

The registration would be for rental property owners and landlords, who would provide the codes department with their name, address, telephone number, emergency number and contact information for a designated manager.

They also would provide the address of the property, number of rental units, names and addresses of tenants and number of occupants per apartment.

According to the proposed legislation, tenants don not physically have to appear at the codes office, but the landlords have to provide accurate information about who they are renting to.

Penalties also are built in for non-compliance affecting landlords and their tenants.

For example, landlords can face temporary closure of their rental properties if a tenant commits three drug or firearms violations or has that number of disruptive behavior incidents or police reports at the apartment or rental property.

The codes enforcement officer, or any authorized city agent, can begin the process to close a rental if there are three or more violations within a six-month period.

Tenants would face fines of not more than $100 for a first offense, up to $300 for a second and up to $500 for a third.

It exempts hotels and motels, college dormitories and residential units occupied by the owner.

“We think we can make it work,” said Joseph Gerardi, city codes administrator.

Gerardi sees benefits in joining the nuisance ordinance and rental inspection ordinance into one document, he said.

“I think the public needs to know we didn’t arrive at where we are without much public input from landlords, citizens and tenants,” Councilman Don Noviello said.

He said it provides “supportive documentation” should cases go before a district judge. “It won’t be a ‘he said,’ ‘she said,’ ” he said.

Landlord registration would be done in phases and broken into four districts. The first districts, including tax wards 5, 9, 11 and 14, would be required to register by the end of the first full month after adoptions..

The second district, including wards 4, 8, 10 and 16, awould be required to register during the second month after adoption; the third district, including wards 3, 6, 13 and 15, during the third month; and the fourth district, including 1, 2, 7 and 12, during the fourth month after adoption.

“That will help us by not having the entire city register all at once,” Gerardi said.

As proposed, the ordinance also requires the property owner/landlord to obtain a license for each residential rental and have a successful codes inspection of each property.

“My personal opinion, not just for this ordinance, is we need more bodies,” said Councilman Randall J. Allison, a member of the committee. Such “boots on the ground” become necessary as the city police begin operating a records-management system in March, he said.

“My motive is to do my job and protect those individuals who are unable to protect themselves and that’s the average citizen in this fine city,” said police Capt. Timothy Miller.

“It’ll improve the quality of life in the city,” Mayor Gabriel J. Campana said.

Campana said a “one-strike” rental law approved in Wilkes-Barre has begun to drive out unwanted tenants and hold landlords accountable for who they rent to.

But Campana said if the city doesn’t approve the proposed ordinance those kind of people will gravitate here.

Campana also said he will propose the city hire an additional codes enforcement officer in the 2014 proposed budget.