A higher court ruling Friday found the city reached too far in its requirement that rental property owners register and have their units inspected.
In this decision impacting property owners across Pittsburgh, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania found the city government doesn’t have authority to require registration and inspections of rental housing. Mayor Ed Gainey said the city plans to appeal the case to the state Supreme Court.
The case is a clash of laws dating back to an ordinance passed by Pittsburgh City Council in 2015. The measure deemed no rental unit to be leased, rented or occupied without the owner first obtaining a permit from the city.
The annual fee for rental permits ranged from $45 to $65 depending on the number of units. Violations of the ordinance would have resulted in fines of $500 per unit per month.
City lawmakers have passed, over 15 years, three separate rental registration ordinances, including a 2021 bill. None have been implemented.
A group of landlords working through the Landlord Service Bureau, Realtors Association of Metropolitan Pittsburgh and Apartment Association of Metropolitan Pittsburgh brought a legal action against the city. They argued the ordinance was “void, and unconstitutional.” The groups also cited the state Home Rule Charter and Optional Plans Law, arguing that the rental registration ordinance was a regulation of its business, and a home rule municipality lacks power to do so under the law.
The court wrote that its reversal came down less so to the existence of a rental ordinance but to the implementation of it. The ruling noted the problem came with the attendant responsibilities placed on landlords — things like having to attend a landlord academy, the use of an online database and following “best practices.”
In court filings, the City argued that the Rental Ordinance is authorized by its broad police power to protect the health and safety of rental housing residents. The court found the city had not identified a legal justification that authorized the city’s “wide-ranging regulation of the residential landlord business.”
Gainey said in a press release that his administration was “deeply disappointed” in Friday’s decision.
“Pittsburgh is a majority renter city and everyone who lives here deserves protection and the knowledge that their rented home meets basic standards of living,” he said in a statement and called the 2015 ordinance “common sense legislation.”
He said that the city plans to appeal to the State Supreme Court.
Since 2008, the city has attempted to enact registration and inspections of its rental housing. In 2009, the city and real estate interests agreed to try to negotiate the terms of a program, but they never reached agreement.
Former Mayor Bill Peduto’s administration and Pittsburgh City Council again began to weigh rental registration in 2014, culminating in the passage of the 2015 ordinance and the ongoing litigation.
Some Pennsylvania cities have long had rental registration programs. In 2021, PublicSource and WESA detailed Allentown’s two-decade-old rental registration regime.
Eric Jankiewicz is PublicSource’s economic development reporter, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ericjankiewicz.
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