City rental ordinance is being challenged

They may need a turnstile at the door of the city Bureau of Codes.

As fast as city codes enforcement officers shut down apartments where alleged illegal drug and firearms activities are occurring, the owners of the rental properties are filing appeals, according to city Codes Administrator Joseph Gerardi.

Four property owners are challenging the merits of the rental property ordinance and may ask for reductions in penalties assessed against them before a nuisance property task force housing board of appeals at noon June 6 in City Council chambers, he said.

The backlash by rental property owners appears to be the start of a process to appeal enforcement action based on the rental ordinance that was approved by council and went into effect Jan. 1. The appeals will be heard by Andrew Lyon, Bernie Timmins, Ron James, Jeff Reeder and former city Police Chief Curley Jett.

To date, four apartments at different properties have been shut down for up to six months because of alleged drug and firearms violations, Gerardi said.

At 909 Louisa St., Robert Shaffer, the property owner, quickly filed an official appeal of the decision.

In addition to Shaffer, Nancy Heilman, who owns an apartment house at 727 Hepburn St., has appealed the codes decision to shut down one of her apartments for six months. Codes also shut down a fourth property for up to six months due to alleged drug activities at an apartment at 1020 Memorial Ave., and Heather Gomez, a designated agent for the property, met with Gerardi Tuesday and filed an appeal. Gomez is not the owner. The owner is listed as 17701 LLC, Gerardi said.

One of those property owners, who faced the surprise of citizens bringing their children on a walk during the enforcement action last month, is upset with the ordinance.

“I applaud them for what they are trying to do but they are going about it the wrong way,” said Michael Warner, the owner of an apartment building at 1112 W. Fourth St.

The apartment house was visited by police and codes officials accompanied by Team Williamsport, a citizens’ advocacy group against crime, which brought children to the enforcement action and was criticized for that by Council President Bill Hall, who feared it was a dangerous precedent.

Warner said his apartment can’t be rented while the violation remains in effect. He has other apartments but said it is difficult to find tenants when they see the front door of the apartment posted.

“I don’t think it’s right,” he said of the ordinance. “I didn’t rent to the tenant, somebody else snuck him in there and the tenant remains in jail,” Warner said, seeking an appeal to mitigate the circumstances and gain back lost revenue.

“When you close one apartment, it makes everyone else in the place look bad, as though they are drug addicts,” Warner said.

Gerardi agreed the ordinance is having an impact.

“The biggest concern expressed by the owners of the properties are they are not getting revenues,” Gerardi said. “Some say they can’t afford to have them shut down and are having trouble renting out another unit because nobody wants to rent from a place when they are seeing the door posted,” Gerardi said.

Tuesday was a busy one for city codes officers, as they posted an apartment city police allege was used to stash heroin and firearms in a house at 909 Louisa St.

“We closed the apartment on Louisa Street for six months,” Gerardi said. The ordinance permits codes to shut down the properties for up to six months if they are suspected of illegal gun and drug activities or if the properties are found to have three building code violations in a six-month period they also can be shut down for a period, Gerardi said.

At the property on Louisa Street, police made arrests of Tenesia Lynn Gathimbi, 31, who police allege turned the third-floor apartment into a stash house.

Police said they arrested two Brooklyn, N.Y., men, seized heroin that would sell on the street for $13,000, confiscated $8,900 in cash, small amounts of crack cocaine and three handguns, one of which was stolen.

Gerardi clarified the apartments where the activities are occurring are closed down, not the entire building, unless the building consists of a single unit, such as off-campus housing where students live in one house.

“Our administration will continue to make landlords responsible by making them accountable,” Mayor Gabriel J. Campana said. “If it takes hurting them in the wallet so be it.”