Rental inspection plan divides city officials, landlords

Hazleton officials believe a rental property inspection program proposed for 2011 would give the city a way to address "substandard" properties that are often rented for outrageous sums.

Landlords, however, contend the program would place a financial burden on some property owners who would be better off if the city would enforce existing ordinances.

City officials propose balancing a projected $7.5 million 2011 budget with $180,000 in fees from a rental property inspection ordinance that could be finalized early next year.

When unveiling the spending plan earlier this year, acting City Administrator Mary Ellen Lieb said the ordinance would require rental property owners to pay to have code, health and fire officials inspect rental units.

At this point, the city is in the "exploration" stage of developing the ordinance, or researching similar measures adopted in other municipalities, Lieb said. Inspection fees have not been determined.

"We really have to make sure that it's something that's affordable, but yet, something that's worth it for the city to out and do all those properties," Lieb said.

She estimates Hazleton could have its own ordinance on the books by late January.

Lieb said recently that the walk-throughs will focus on sanitation or code issues, such as whether units are infested by cockroaches or bedbugs, or whether inspectors spot mold, peeling paint, malfunctioning smoke detectors or a lack of running water.

Some municipalities with similar ordinances in place developed brochures that contain a checklist of items that the inspections will focus on, Lieb said.

That way, landlords have an opportunity to review inspection criteria and make sure units are up to snuff, she said.

"They had a whole page, a three- to four-column checklist, broken into categories as far as exterior of properties, plumbing and electrical," Lieb explained. "Our staff can use that to go through the home. It can also be picked up ahead of time by landlords."

Similar ordinances enacted in other municipalities give landlords a timetable for addressing shortcomings identified by inspectors, Lieb said.

"If we find violations, you have to figure out how much time to give (to correct them)," she said. "Some violations they may be able to address in five to 10 days. Others may take a little longer."

Fees vary by municipality, with some charging a flat rate per unit. Others charge an inspection fee along with a separate charge for a certificate that verifies an inspection has been completed, she said.

Other communities tack on additional charges if inspectors have to return to a unit and determine if violations were addressed. The city would also have to decide whether it will include the magistrate in the process.

"There's a lot we need to make sure we're covering," Lieb said.

Reaction

Although the ordinance is in the development stages, at least two local landlords aren't happy with the prospect of having to pay more for owning rental units.

Bob Yevak, who has watched his contingent of rental properties fall from 18 to nine in recent years, believes the city would be better off enforcing existing codes and improving conditions in neighborhoods.

"I don't think that's a good idea," Yevak said when asked about the rental inspection concept. "They don't enforce what they have right now."

Yevak bought his first rental property, along South Wyoming Street, 24 years ago. With its proximity close to a church, he had no problem finding suitable tenants in his early years of ownership.

Today, Yevak is hard-pressed to find tenants. He believes conditions in the neighborhood have declined to the point where it would be nearly impossible to get the asking price he seeks if he were to sell the property.

"I can't get somebody to look at them -- that's how bad Hazleton is," he said. "The city needs to be cleaned up. A lot of stuff has to be done before they come after landlords -- before they try and put them out of business."

Yevak opposes paying a rental inspection fee, particularly since landlords are already faced with annual trash bills and fees for registering rental units.

Hazleton resident Tom Bruno, who has been renting properties for about 12 years, said elected officials at all levels should focus on ways to cut costs rather than developing new fees or taxes.

"Instead of finding ways to balance budgets, they're always looking for ways to come up with money," he said. "Instead of cutting something, or saying 'These (employees) make too much money' they're just coming up with ways to come up with more money. How many times can you be taxed?"

Bruno rents 14 properties in the city and believes a rental inspection fee would place another burden on landlords.

Bruno doesn't doubt that some city properties are in need of inspections, but said he was of the understanding that the city currently doesn't inspect rental properties unless they are vacant.

House subsidy programs, such as Section 8, requires inspections but doesn't charge for them, he noted.

"It's really the responsibility of who ever's renting," Bruno said of the inspections.

A need?

At least two city employees who respond to health and code complaints share a different view on the concept of rental inspections.

Health Officer Mark Thompson said he and code enforcement frequently visit "substandard" properties.

Last week, Thompson was called to a rental property in the Hazleton Heights that has been condemned on nearly 10 occasions in the past. The latest issue was a dispute between the landlord and tenant over which party was responsible for $2,500 in water fees.

The property owner also failed to a previous violation and have screens installed in windows, Thompson said.

Another city property, on East Mine Street, had a wrong-sized door installed on the front porch -- which left a one-foot gap -- and an incorrectly sized basement door, he said. The home had a rat problem.

Thompson believes part of the issue with rental properties is that landlords are overcharging for rent while failing to property maintain the home.

"My concern is there's a lot of substandard property that are being rented out for outrageous sums," he said. "I don't think the property is worth the $600 in rent that they're paying."

Fire Chief Donald Leshko said that while he hasn't had an opportunity to review the working rental inspection ordinance, he believes there is a need for it.

"There's definitely a need to make sure everything is on the up-and-up," he said.

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