Mayor Gabriel J. Campana has proposed a new landlord and tenant registration law that at least one legal expert says may unintentionally harm poor people and those without government forms of identification if it isn't written properly and reviewed thoroughly by City Council.
Campana's proposed law, which he introduced during a news conference Thursday along Hepburn Street, would require tenants to provide city codes department with two forms of verifiable identification, such as driver's license and Social Security card number. Landlords would have to register with codes and provide how many occupants they have and who lives in each rental unit.
Campana and police officials said the proposal, in draft form, mirrors a 25-page landlord ordinance that Berwick uses. It has been reviewed and passed muster with city solicitor Norm Lubin. However, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union in Philadelphia told the Sun-Gazette that the office will be keeping a close eye on the law's development.
CRAIG S. McKIBBEN JR./Sun-Gazette
From left, Mayor Gabriel J. Campana, Williamsport Bureau of Police Capt. Tim Miller and Williamsport Bureau of Police Chief Greg Foresman hold a press conference Thursday to announce a proposed ordinance requiring landlords and rental tenants to register with the city.
"We see several problems with a landlord-tenant registration ordinance," said Mary Catherine Roper, senior attorney with the ACLU. "One is it can be, frankly, dangerous for people who've been victims of domestic violence or stalking who are trying to keep their whereabouts quiet," she said. She questioned who would have access to the information. "Might it be an ex-boyfriend who works in the city who is stalking someone."
Later in the day, Lubin said the initial plan was for the database to be wholly public, but city officials may amend the proposal so tenants' identities and addresses would remain confidential.
Another potential stickler is the proposal's requirement of two forms of identification to satisfy the requirements. "Not everyone has two forms of identification," Roper said. "That's part of what we're arguing about in voter identification legislation."
Pennsylvania, Indiana, Kansas, Tennessee and Georgia - have what are called strict photo identification requirements, meaning voters must present specific kinds of photo IDs before voting.
Williamsport, she said, has a substantial poor and minority population and those are the people who often don't have identification.
"It's those kind of people who don't generally carry driver's licenses or have government identification that we've been concerned with," Roper said. "Depending on how this is drafted, the city could find itself punishing a lot of people for simply being poor."
Roper declined to comment on any attempts by the city government to reduce crime or drug activities with the drafted law, but said the city has a choice whether to make it "as ridiculous as the voter ID law."
When questioned about the constitutionality of the proposal, Campana simply said it passed in Berwick and is under consideration for use in Sunbury.
"We didn't just think about this law yesterday," he said. "We've done extensive research."
However, Roper added the state constitution strongly recognizes the right to privacy. "It will depend on how it is written and how many people it excludes," she said, reiterating her thoughts and issuing a promise to monitor the developments.
"If they do draft it properly, and we will be interested to see what they come up with and hope they keep, in particular, poor people in mind when they think how this will affect folks. Hopefully, it won't punish people who've done nothing wrong," she said.
Campana said he isn't after the poor, but rather obnoxious and chronically bad behavior. He believes it's a law that will improve quality of life for city residents, but he also supports the measure as a way to reduce the number of drug dealers finding apartments to live in as their lairs and hold absentee landlords accountable.
"How many drug dealers or landlords who allow drug dealers to live in their properties will be willing to come down to City Hall to register?" he said.
"How many drug dealers do you think carry two forms of identification with them?" Campana said.
Police Chief Gregory Foresman fell short of acknowledging it would hold landlords accountable for "obnoxious behavior" and "improve the neighboring properties of some of these apartments where police have responded chronically."
According to Greg Harkins, Berwick's codes enforcement supervisor, their law was unanimously approved by city council five years ago. "Our codes department personnel inspect every rental unit every year, charging the landlord a $50 rental license fee, and require the landlord to register all apartments every year by Jan. 10," Harkins said.
"We also require tenants to register within 10 days after they move into a building," Harkins said.
Asked how the law is enforced should a landlord live out of town or in another state or country, Harkins said the ordinance covers that contingency.
"It says the landlord must have a local representative or caretaker responsible for upkeep of property and they must provide codes with that local contact person," Harkins said.
Harkins said he believed it has worked to help police, and inform codes if overcrowding is occurring or if there are violations of the building property maintenance codes.
The city also may be considering requiring a fee from the landlords when they register their properties, as Berwick does.