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Carlisle

Carlisle Borough Council moves ahead on rental ordinance amendment despite requests to slow the process

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Property owners urged the Carlisle Borough Council to slow down on its efforts to enact an amendment to its rental housing ordinance that would set up an inspection cycle for rental properties.

“I think it would be prudent to move slowly on this. Not to put a complete break on it, but to reengage, to rediscuss these measures, to tweak some of these things so they are reasonable, fair and implementable,” property owner Joseph Nunez told the council.

His comments came prior to the council vote Thursday to draft and advertise an amendment to its rental housing ordinance that establishes an inspection program. In February 2020, the borough voted to draft and advertise the ordinance for adoption at its April meeting, but those plans were put on pause when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

Carlisle Borough officials postpone action on rental ordinance
Carlisle picks up discussions on proposed rental ordinance amendment after nearly 18-month hiatus due to pandemic

Since the disaster emergency was lifted this summer, the borough resumed work on the ordinance so that its implementation could be considered heading into budget planning for 2022.

Changes in the ordinance since February 2020 focus on the implementation date, which is now set for Sept. 1, 2022, if the measure is adopted at the borough council’s November meeting.

Nunez said additional changes had been made between the time property owners met with Borough Manager Susan Armstrong and borough staff and the time the draft ordinance was adopted initially last year. Discussions resulted in the incorporation of many “reasonable and sound” measures into the ordinance, he said.

“Unfortunately, after the borough council met in private, the borough council deleted many of these good measures and the ordinance is not an accurate reflection of the coordination that occurred between a number of property owners and the borough manager and her staff,” Nunez said.

Deputy Mayor Sean Shultz denied that the borough council met in private to make changes.

“That’s entirely inaccurate. It would be a violation of (the) Sunshine (Act) and this body does not violate Sunshine,” he said.

There were changes in the draft ordinance from the one discussed at the borough council’s Feb. 5, 2020, workshop meeting and the one that was advertised after a Feb. 13, 2020, council meeting.

For example, the earlier draft of the ordinance included a clause that would have exempted owners of rental properties who lived in the borough from the inspection program. The clause evolved out of an exemption in an earlier version of the amendment for landlords who lived in the property being rented.

That exemption was changed in the version of the ordinance that was drafted and advertised to include property owners who lived within 25 miles of the borough line. The change also put the property owners on a five-year inspection schedule after passing an initial inspection.

Minutes from the Feb. 5 workshop meeting show that borough solicitor Keith Brenneman raised questions about the legality of allowing inspection exemptions to landlords living in the borough. In a discussion with property owners, the suggestion was made that the exemption not be eliminated as a means to address the legality of the issue, but that the exemption be expanded to a larger geographic area.

As the discussion ended, according to the minutes, Armstrong asked the council for direction, and the consensus was to make landlords and property owners exempt from inspections for five years after passing an initial inspection if they lived within a 25-mile radius of the borough.

Without that exemption, the property would be placed into a three-year cycle following an initial inspection and be placed on a five-year cycle if no violations were found in the first follow-up inspection.

Shultz said the draft ordinance under consideration is “very different” from what was initially proposed at the beginning of rental ordinance discussions more than two years ago. The reason it’s different is because of the meetings between the borough manager and property owners, he said.

At the same time, the borough knows that code issues brought to their attention come disproportionately from rental properties. To do something about that, the borough needs to have an inspection program and as many incentives as possible have been included in the current draft, Shultz said.

“We cannot enter to inspect without a program like this that applies across the board. This is the tool,” he said. “We worked through those many months prior to the pandemic to accommodate as much as possible what the needs of the landlords were.”

Nunez disagreed.

“As written today, the ordinance today does not have sufficient carrots to reward compliance and does not have the support of property owners that I have been speaking with over the last month or two,” Nunez said.

The changes are coming at a time when property owners are still reeling from the pandemic.

“Property owners are hurting from the rent moratorium. Many have received no rent or any type of government reimbursement as of now,” Nunez said.

Dana Steffy, who owns several properties in the borough, said rents have already had to be increased because of COVID-related losses, taxes and increased water rates. She’s had to cut back on the properties she offers through the Department of Housing and Urban Development because its rates no longer match what she has to charge to make money.

“The more fees and hoops that have to be jumped through for landlords, the higher the rates are and you’re going to get less participation with the HUD program,” she said.

Shultz countered that the costs are minimal per month in that compliant property owners would be on a five-year cycle that works out to a cost of $2.08 per month per unit rented.

“The endgame of this is to ensure safety in rental properties,” he said. “We have a vast majority of very good landlords who take very good care of the property.”

Landlords agreed, but said their efforts over the years to provide high quality rental properties should be more clearly acknowledged.

“Many of us care deeply for our tenants. We take care of our properties. Some of us have had zero violations over a long period of time and we think that the borough ought to take that into consideration more in the draft of this regulation,” Nunez said.

Email Tammie at tgitt@cumberlink.com. Follow her on Twitter @TammieGitt.

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