Carlisle Borough Council is looking into revising the borough’s rental housing ordinance, with the contentious idea of mandatory housing inspections likely to be discussed.
At Wednesday night’s borough council workshop meeting, borough staff presented council members with four rental ordinances from other Pennsylvania jurisdictions — Gettysburg, Mount Holly Springs, West Chester, and State College — intended as a starting point to further develop Carlisle’s rental law, which was developed in 2011 and passed in January 2012.
“It was very new for us and we promised that we would go back and look at that at some point in time,” said council member Robin Guido regarding the 2012 ordinance.
“My goal in this is not to get everyone granite countertops and stainless steel appliances,” Guido said. “But people should have heat and water and pest-free homes. [There are] basic living conditions that we should require.”
The borough’s current ordinance requires rental units to be registered with the borough, providing information about the unit and its occupancy, as well as contact information for the landlord in case of emergency. Landlords who do not live within a 25-mile radius of the county courthouse must provide the information of a resident agent.
Inspections by the borough are available, upon request, to ensure that the property complies with all applicable codes — but are not mandatory.
This gives Carlisle’s housing law much less bite than one like the Mount Holly Springs ordinance, which requires inspection by a borough official every three years. Inspections collect information about adequate fire escape routes, ventilation, utility function, peeling paint, and other housing standards.
Property owners, however, are generally opposed to mandatory inspections, said David Lanza, an attorney for the Capital Area Rental Property Owners Association.
Responsible landlords, Lanza said, should not have inspection costs foisted upon them when the majority of the problems with delinquent properties come from a small number of owners.
“I think you have existing tools at your disposal to go after those owners without imposing inspections on all properties throughout the borough,” Lanza told the council. “The fees and the amount of money being imposed on the landlords will be passed on to tenants.”
The argument in favor of mandatory inspections, generally speaking, is that it takes the onus off of tenants to make complaints about their housing conditions. If not for borough-initiated inspections, tenants living in substandard or illegal conditions may not come forward.
“’I’m afraid to say anything to my landlord because I’ll get kicked out and there’s nowhere else to go,’” Guido paraphrased.
The borough’s 2012 ordinance provides that the borough have a set of suggested lease provisions, designed to protect tenants and landlords, but these standards are only “encouraged” and not required.
A revised ordinance would not just have enforcement directed at landlords — it would also attempt to deal with problem tenants.
“These ordinances are for landlords as well as the folks that rent,” said Carlisle Mayor Tim Scott. “We can’t help you unless we have something on the books.”
Systems in place
Other jurisdictions, it was noted, have created systems whereby a certain number of code violations and/or police calls to a unit are grounds for eviction, helping landlords get rid of problem tenants even if such provisions aren’t in their lease.
Such laws also present problems, however. Both council members Sean Crampsie and Brenda Landis noted that those policies can discourage victims of domestic violence from reporting abuse, fearing that it will become grounds for eviction.
There is also the issue of whether such a municipal rule be enforced by judges who are bound by commonwealth law – such clauses have proven unenforceable in eviction cases elsewhere, said Glenn Lehman of Lehman Property Management, a Harrisburg-based rental operator.
“When it comes to putting together an ordinance like this ... you have to make sure it makes sense and is enforceable,” Lehman said.
Borough council is expected to go over possible rental ordinance changes at its next workshop meeting on Feb. 6.