In one of Pennsylvania’s largest cities, landlords pay annual registration fees and inspectors aim to regularly check every apartment and rental house for health and safety risks.
It’s not Pittsburgh, where 13 years of city efforts to register and inspect rental housing have been thwarted by court actions, most recently a judge’s decision in July to bar the imposition of per-unit fees of $45 to $65.
In Allentown, the state’s third-most-populous city, all rental units have been subjected to semi-regular inspections since 2000. Some landlords say Allentown’s inspections are inconsistent, while tenant advocates counter that they’re not frequent enough. But the program survived a court challenge from landlords, and inspectors will soon be armed with computers even as officials weigh more targeted inspections of problem properties.
The program “still needs more improvement because they need more inspectors,” said Julian Kern, president of the Allentown Tenant Association. What would the city be like without rental inspections? “If they scrapped the program, the city will just become a disaster with blight,” he said.
In Allegheny County, including Pittsburgh, county inspectors examine rental housing for health concerns, while municipal building inspectors look for safety hazards — both typically in response to complaints. PublicSource and WESA reported in August that hundreds of violations detected by the Allegheny County Health Department at two McKeesport properties generated minimal fines.
Pittsburgh’s major-party mayoral contenders both say they want landlords to register their units with the city.
“We have to do something. You know how many landlords we’ve dealt with that haven’t kept up with their properties,” said Democratic nominee Ed Gainey, now a state representative from Lincoln-Lemington. “We want inspections. That’s the way you ensure that the property is in good standing.”
Gainey said that if elected, he’ll look at other cities’ rental registration and inspection programs; meet with housing advocates, real estate interests and building inspectors; crunch the data to calculate the cost of a program and the needed fees; and advance new legislation. He added that registration would also allow the city to better inform landlords of city programs that can benefit them.
Republican candidate Tony Moreno said in an interview that the city should not only register rental housing properties but regularly inspect units. He added, though, that Mayor Bill Peduto’s administration has botched its effort by trying to impose fees that amount to “a money grab.”
“Why can’t we go to these companies and these [rental property] owners and say, ‘Hey, look, this needs to be done,’” and work out a fair system and reasonable cost, thereby avoiding another court fight, Moreno said.
This year, WESA and PublicSource are exploring Allegheny County’s changing and growing rental housing market, especially the affordable sector, and examining the governmental and civic responses to the emergence of Tenant Cities. In August, the team traveled to Allentown to learn about its approach.
Allentown isn’t a housing utopia, but it is trying to protect tenants, its officials say.
“I believe the program is definitely beneficial to the city,” said Deputy Mayor Leonard Lightner, who is also Allentown’s director of community and economic development. “We are catching many of the properties that could fall into worse condition than they’re in.”
Carrying the ‘political football’
Modesto Medina takes a non-confrontational approach to his job as a housing inspector.
“I don't go in there kicking the door open like I'm an enforcer or enforcing things,” he said, as he waited outside of a litter-strewn townhouse in one of Allentown’s southern neighborhoods. “Rather, I'm there to help, to help them be safe in their own homes. And I work with people. I treat them as human beings because they are.”
On a hot August morning, Medina told the owner of a vacant house that he needed to replace a cracked window and a broken electrical outlet, and to shield the electrical service line with a conduit to keep kids from yanking on it. His schedule typically includes one inspection per hour — sometimes involving an occupied rental unit, sometimes a house that’s slated for sale — and on this day the back seat of his car was strewn with folders for a dozen properties.
Medina is among 14 housing inspectors charged with enforcing a rental housing quality control program that goes well beyond those in Pennsylvania’s larger cities, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.
- Landlords must register every housing unit with the city.
- The city must inspect each rental no more frequently than once every five years, unless there’s a complaint.
- Landlords must pay the city $75 per unit per year, or more if they repeatedly fail inspections.
- Tenants can face eviction if they repeatedly disturb the peace of neighbors.
The program emerged in the 1990s from an alliance of building inspectors and neighborhood advocates who were concerned that landlords were dividing single-family homes into multiple apartments.
That coalition pushed Allentown City Council to regulate rental housing. They found, though, that opposition from landlords made it “a political football that nobody really wanted to carry across the line,” said Eric Weiss, a former director of Allentown’s Bureau of Building Standards and Safety.
So inspectors and advocates teamed up, collecting signatures and forcing a ballot referendum. An overwhelming majority of voters backed it, ushering in a per-unit fee — initially as low as $11 per year — plus the inspections and tenant behavior standards.
Listen to the 90.5 WESA story:
Landlords didn’t challenge the ordinance in court until 2012, after Allentown raised the per-unit fee to $75. In 2017, Commonwealth Court ruled that the landlords had failed to prove that the city was charging more than reasonably necessary to cover the costs of the program.
“To have somebody go over, spend an hour, process it and everything, I guess $75 sounds OK,” said Jack Gross, whose firm Cassidon Property Management rents out properties in Allentown, and who is past president of the Greater Lehigh Valley Realtors.
Gross said he gets frustrated when different inspectors take varied approaches to enforcing the building code, or go beyond what he considers health and safety and tell him to restain a deck or put a downspout on a shed. But the overall concept? “I don’t know of anybody who is against health and safety inspections.”
But back in Pittsburgh …
In 2007, Pittsburgh tried to compel landlords to register rental units, charge $12 annually for each and, in limited circumstances, inspect them. Ten plaintiffs — including the Realtors Association of Metropolitan Pittsburgh [RAMP] — sued to stop it. In 2009, all sides agreed to try to renegotiate the terms of the program, but they never reached agreement.
When the Peduto administration and Pittsburgh City Council again began to weigh rental registration in 2014, RAMP presented a proposal for a $10-per-unit fee, according to that association’s Executive Vice President John Petrack.
Council instead passed legislation to charge landlords $45 to $65 annually per unit and inspect each apartment or rental house every three to five years.
“We obviously understand and not necessarily completely disagree with the rental registration,” Petrack said in August. But the city’s legislation put too many burdens on property owners and charged too much, creating a de facto “renter’s tax,” he said.
RAMP and others went back to court, and the case climaxed in a multi-day hearing in February. The city argued that the fees lined up with the cost of administering the program. The landlords’ advocates said the fee was much too high, and therefore an unfair and illegal tax on rental housing. Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas Judge Joseph James found in favor of the landlords and barred the city from imposing the fee.
In August, the judge also swatted aside, in a two-line order, a city request for approval to charge around $11 per unit. The city is reviewing its legal options, according to a spokeswoman for Peduto’s office.
RAMP would like to be at the table with the next mayor should they consider rental regulation. “The concept of making sure we have safe and adequate housing is admirable, but when you go beyond that and kind of make things up as you go, that’s when you have problems,” said the association’s President Bob Moncavage. He suspected that the city’s real goal was to identify all tenants within its borders to “make sure that they’re being taxed.”
Like Pittsburgh, McKeesport has tried to impose rental registration, with fees and inspections. McKeesport also has been stymied by court decisions — most recently a series of 2018 rulings by Common Pleas Judge Paul F. Lutty barring enforcement of its ordinance. Mayor Michael Cherepko said in a July interview that he hopes to revive the effort.
Moncavage doubted that any regime of registration and inspection would catch the minority of units that are poorly maintained: “I think the bad actors that are out there are simply going to fly under the radar and ignore it.”
Catch it before it collapses
COVID-19 has made home safety more important than ever, said Talor Musil, health policy coordinator for Women for a Healthy Environment, a nonprofit organization based in East Liberty that focuses partly on housing. Homes are “supposed to be a place where we can be safe from the dangers of the pandemic,” she said. “Mechanisms to prompt ongoing maintenance are really critical right now.”
Inspection systems spurred largely by complaints “can actually worsen disparities and sort of leave properties behind,” said Amanda Reddy, executive director for the National Center for Healthy Housing.
While vocal tenants might get results, others might silently endure unsafe housing.
“You can imagine that vulnerable populations like undocumented residents or these low-income tenants can be fearful of repercussions like being evicted, or being subjected to increased rent” if they upset the landlord by complaining, Reddy said.
Musil added that if government inspects only when it receives a complaint, health and safety hazards — especially invisible ones such as lead or radon gas — won’t be noted until they’ve already caused irreparable harm. Periodic inspections, on the other hand, can catch those problems, as well as structural problems “before something has completely collapsed or completely fallen in.”
‘Hell on earth’
Since rowdy college students rented the house next to his in the 1990s, Scott Armstrong has been one of Allentown’s most vocal believers in rental inspection.
“When the landlords know, or the property owners know, that their building is going to be inspected every five years, they're not going to sneak in illegal units because they'll have to remove them when they get inspected,” said Armstrong, a board member of Allentown’s West Park Civic Association. “But if it's not systematic, they'll take chances”
Unfortunately, the program hasn’t been systematic for years, Armstrong said. “The only inspections going on that I’m aware of are either upon complaint, or what they feel like inspecting.”
Tenant leader Kern said his group has found properties that escaped inspection for 10 to 15 years. He added that the program improved recently, since the city added a few more inspectors.
Last year, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, inspections were largely curtailed. But in the first seven months of this year, the city inspected 1,968 units, according to Heidi Westerman, director of Allentown’s Bureau of Building Standards and Safety.
That pace would allow for check-ups of all of the city’s estimated 28,000 units in eight years.
“Eight years is way too long,” said Kern.
Westerman said the city is trying to catch up by having inspectors work overtime. The city also plans to replace paper folders with laptops to improve efficiency — and transparency.
Once the process is digitized, she said, the city plans to put the resulting data on its website. “So if you go into the website from any location, you can kind of look up and see: How many violations has this property had?” she said, adding that information on health factors such as lead remediation also might be available at a click.
She also plans to use the data for targeted inspections. City officials are working on a performance-based system, in which most landlords would remain on a five-year inspection cycle, while those with more violations would face inspection every year or every three years. That would potentially help to counteract a feared decline in housing quality resulting from reduced landlord investment during the pandemic, she said.
The goal, according to City Councilman Josh Siegel: “We want to make Allentown hell on earth for bad landlords and slumlords. … No one should live in a crappy property with a landlord that is indifferent to their circumstances, doesn't care about them.”
Kate Giammarise is a reporter covering the impact of COVID-19 on the economy for WESA, and can be reached at email@example.com or 412-697-2953.
This story was fact-checked by Matt Maielli.
This content was produced with support from the Doris O'Donnell Innovations in Investigative Journalism Fellowship, awarded by the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University in Pittsburgh, PA.