City Council approved by a 7-0 vote the first reading of a proposed rental ordinance meant to reduce drug-related crimes and inappropriate behaviors at rental properties.
The decision wasn't arrived at until early Friday morning, after hours of allowances for citizens to speak for and against it and commentary by police, backed by legal assistance from Wilkes-Barre and a codes officer from Berwick, who presented their case to council, which then thoroughly reviewed aspects they had questions on and offered several amendments.
The ordinance, according to police Capt. Timothy Miller, who researched and drafted the ordinance, will give the city a legal tool to help police and codes officers improve the quality of the rental properties. It is expected to provide more teeth to help eradicate the drug problem plaguing the city, which is a "source for heroin," according to federal law enforcement officials.
Miller and police Capt. Mike Orwig, who has 28 years on the department, said the ordinance is a starting point because until this time police had no recourse to deal with problematic landlords and tenants.
The outcry for and against the ordinance from citizens before the vote was palpable. Susan Elliott, of Memorial Avenue, said something needed to be done because her own neighbors are allowing trash to accumulate.
She asked, "How would you (slumlords) like to live next to one of your properties?"
Howard Anthony, of West Edwin Street, a former city fire chief, said he can watch drug dealing occurring from his residence. "I counted 39 different license plates in 12 days," he said.
Anthony said it is unfair for property owners, who pay $3,000 a year in county, school and local taxes, to continue to live under these situations.
Anthony said he didn't have problems with some landlords, but noted the amount of substandard housing shows many could care less.
Former police chief Curley Jett said renting properties is "big business" with some landlords overseeing as few as six properties and able to earn six figures. He questioned whether all rental property owners are paying their share of mercantile tax.
Dave Kranz, president of the local landlords association, asked council to table the ordinance and allow the association to review it and provide input and share some of their findings with council and the administration. The ordinance is due for a second reading and further amendments can be made.
Kathryn Nassberg, who operates 200 apartments, said portions of the ordinance were vague and ambiguous.
She cautioned that, as written, it targets all landlords instead of focusing on those creating the problems.
It also creates unrealistic burdens on rental property owners and privacy concerns, she said.
"Who would want to live in a property where the landlord is monitoring them?" she asked. She also is concerned about language that indicates a violation such as operating a meth lab is equal to peeling paint.
"We're not stupid," Miller said in response to Nassberg. "Police have to differentiate between what is a crime and what is not every day."
Miller said the biggest part of the ordinance is the closure option. Essentially, if shootings and selling drugs goes on at a rental property, the city has the ability to shut it down.
"It gives the city the ability to immediately close a property in the same manner one might do if there were an issue of endangerment to the health, safety and welfare of the tenants," Miller said.
"No longer can landlords thumb their noses or say they didn't know," he said.
They will have to rectify the situation and prove they did it with a corrective action report, Miller added.
Councilman Jonathan Williamson said the one kernal of the ordinance he favored was how it empowers landlords to make it easier to get rid of tenants they need to while protecting the rights of those who abide by the laws and what is expected in a civil society.
Campana said the ordinance will allow the city to get a better handle on the actual count of who is living in the city and who is paying and not paying their share of taxes.
Miller said he can understand council and the community's questions but said the city must change direction because the behavior has been tolerated for decades.
"It's time to point the finger at who is influencing who in this city," he said.
With more than 60 percent of the properties being rentals, including 505 buildings in a higher crime section between Cemetery and Market streets, the city's rental issue is directly related to the heroin and drug and firearms crimes, Miller said.
"Over 2,000 units, assuming each building contains four apartments and we know some have more, and more than three years of unbiased crime data, available at the county, indicates the problem is rental properties," he said.
In no way are the police, administration and council labeling renters as second-class citizens. Many are hardworking and contribute their taxes, and these are the people who Miller believes deserve a better place to live, work and raise their families.
"The chronic erosion of neighborhoods is the plague that is left by the lack of accountability," Miller said, of the law meant to allocate resources for those willing to play by the rules.
"These are not homeowning residents," Captain Orwig said. "The murderers are staying here and staying with someone . . . based on my experience, in the rentals are staying as guests or are the tenants themselves," he said.
"Thirty years with no end in sight," Orwig said, warning that without passage of such ordinances the next decades hold a worse fate.
Orwig also said why are tenants a protected class and homeowners are not. "Anyone can go to the courthouse and look up the mayor's address," he said.
Miller said when Campana removed the mandate of landlords registering the names of tenants, he was upset but could live with the change.
"I didn't think it was worth risking the entire ordinance to keep it in," Miller said.
"It wouldn't have passed if it wasn't taken out," Campana said.
Miller said other amendments were offered, including removing a $30 feet for rental license renewal. "If that wasn't taken out it would have passed," Campana said.
The appeals process before a housing board for any disputes was another plus, according to the consensus of council.