Success of new rental ordinance depends on how well it’s enforced

A city rental ordinance designed to reduce drug and firearms crimes and hold landlords and tenants accountable for illegalities is expected to go into effect by January or – at the latest – February.

While it was approved by a 6-1 vote Thursday by City Council, and was to be signed by Council President Bill Hall and Mayor Gabriel J. Campana Friday, it can’t be enforced until the landlord registration process is completed, according to police Capt. Timothy Miller, who researched other communities’ ordinances in preparation for the city’s ordinance.

The ordinance allows police to shut down rental properties and apartments where drug or firearms crimes are proven to be occurring. It also provides police and codes officials with a public safety tool to issue citations to get landlords to correct any disruptive behavior, Hall said.

“We’ll see how it plays out,” he said, adding that it isn’t written to go after responsible landlords who manage their properties and have tenants who are law abiding.

“It really is about whether the landlord wants to stay in business (and) the tenants want to continue to have a roof over his or her head. I think we found a balance and need to strengthen law enforcement and protect tenants’ rights,” he said.

“It sets up a one-strike rule for tenants and can take away the license of the landlord to rent should the tenant be proven to be dealing illegal drugs or committing firearms violation or causing a riot, or the landlord knowingly permit the unlawful activity to occur,” Miller said.

Fines are established, from $500 to $1,000, for tenants and are discretionary and issued by a district judge, Miller said.

“It also sets up rules for suspension, revocation, penalties for minor violations – to get the cooperation of landlords and a appeals process,” he said.

The insertion of the penalty section was opposed by Councilwoman Liz Miele, who voted against the ordinance.

She described to the Sun-Gazette her rationale following the late-night vote.

“I have an unusual perspective on this ordinance – I’m a landlord, but I have many friends and associates who are tenants, and valuable citizens in the city,” Miele said.

According to Miele, when council left the chambers on Oct. 10 she “was confident the city had achieved a plausible compromise between strengthening law enforcement and tenants’ rights.”

Miele said the “plausible compromise” dissappeared during Thursday’s meeting when “several council members changed course … and reinstated language that (she) felt discriminated against” law-abidding tenants.

“The law that was passed was not a law that I felt I could represent to my tenants as being a fair shake for them.” she said. “As a consequence, I could make no other choice than to vote against it.”

Hall also voted against the fines being reinstated.

“It wasn’t reason to vote against the ordinance as a whole,” he said. “We’re relying on the professionalism of police and codes departments to use good judgment.”

Hall also said he anticipates tweaking may be necessary.

“Nothing is perfect and may require that as the process begins to have landlords register their properties with city codes department,” he said.

Campana, meanwhile, is elated but wants to ensure other communities pass similar law.

In a news conference planned for Monday, Campana said he is going to reach out to other municipalities.

“We have a crime problem throughout the city and county,” he said. “Our administration is going to see if these other communities are interested in adopting our ordinance to push out criminals.

“It’s not my objective to push them to Old Lycoming Township, Loyalsock Township, South Williamsport, DuBoistown, Muncy, Hughesville or Jersey Shore,” he said.

“We need to push this element out of the city and the county,” he added.