Rent check Borough considers inspection ordinance

By on January 23, 2013

By: STEPHEN SEEBER Record Express Staff, Staff Writer

Lititz Borough is investigating the pros and cons of a Rental Inspection Ordinance intended to make apartments more safe for tenants, landlords and EMS responders.

The proposed ordinance is still in committee and has not been brought before borough council, so details are still being refined. Approval, if it occurs, is a long way off. In the meantime, committee members, led by councilman Todd Fulginiti, are gathering feedback.

"This program is going to make the community better," he said, "and it’s not really heavy-handed at all."

An overview, prepared by this borough committee, defines the proposal as "an ordinance to amend the Code of Ordinances of the Borough of Lititz, to add a residential rental unit regulation, to provide requirements for the licensing and inspection of residential rental units and to require a landlord to insure that tenants comply with applicable codes and regulations."

On Jan. 9, the committee hosted a meeting with Lititz landlords at borough hall. The packed house was an indicator that rental property owners have some concerns with the proposal, or at least want more information. While most recognize the value in safety inspections, some question whether or not bigger government (in the form of a new law) is the best approach to achieve that goal.

Tim Diem, who owns six rental units in town, takes pride in his properties and feels the mechanisms are already in place to police safety.

"If you add a license fee and inspection fee, that will be passed on to tenants, which will mean an increase in rents," he said.

He agrees that safety is important, but believes current state laws are adequate.

A $50 inspection fee was discussed at the meeting, but the committee said that is not set in stone and will be adjusted as feedback is assessed. The current proposal also calls for inspections every three years.

Some of the requirements of landlords, as outlined in the overview distributed at the Jan. 9 meeting, include maintaining all applicable codes, keeping the premises in good condition, insure payment of vital utilities, maintaining a rental license for each unit, providing change of tenant information to the borough, and the stipulation that an owner/manager may not reside more than 25 miles from the rental unit.

The ordinance also details occupant responsibilities and lays out a fine structure for violations.

Doug Bomberger, borough councilman and committee member, said is not a fan of more government. However, his goal at this point is to collect as much input from the public as possible.

"This is a town that solves problems together," he said, referring to the standing-room-only meeting. "People care. We took a little heat, but it was productive. It demonstrates how well this community works.

At the end of the day, if something is passed, he wants it to be something that the community endorses.

"My position is, I want to see as much engagement with the community as possible so council can make an informed decision."

Lititz Fire Chief and Mayor Ron Oettel is in favor of passing some version of this ordinance.

"I’ve never seen that room (borough hall) that full," he said of the recent meeting. "Generally, I think the concept was mostly positive. Most understand. There were a few comments about overreaching government. Nobody supports small government more than me, but the most positive argument is for the safety, health and welfare of the tenants.

"We have a lot of very good landlords," he continued, referring to those who attended the meeting. "But as fire chief, I’ve seen a lot of bad apartments. Sometimes it’s the tenant, sometimes it’s the landlord. This ordinance creates some expectations and some accountability. In the end, everybody wins."

The number one safety issue in apartments, according to Oettel, is working smoke detectors. That is followed by improper installations, and then clutter and hoarding.

He referred to last year’s fire in a row of apartments in the first block of West Orange Street in which there were no working smoke detectors in three of the four homes.

"We’re lucky we didn’t pull any dead people out of there," he said.

The ordinance, he adds, is intended to proactively address these situations. He also understands that landlords, and the public, have a lot of unanswered questions and suggestions to bring to the table.

"Everything at the meeting is a proposal," he said. "We’re looking for feedback, to engage the public."

Lititz Police Sgt. Kerry Nye, who is on the committee, is also in favor of the ordinance.

"I think it’s a good thing," he said. "It helps us. We’ve seen a lot of horrendous conditions that should be addressed."

He believes most borough landlords are responsible and take care of their properties, but the few who don’t enable dangerous situations for tenants and first responders.

"We’ve been to many situations," Nye said, "and you cannot even get inside of some of these rentals because they’re so cluttered. We (police) get paid to respond to emergencies, but EMS and firefighters are volunteers. They’re risking their lives. We want to protect the tenants, the landlords and the first responders. I think this ordinance is a good thing, and in the long run it will help keep our town the nice place to live that it is."

Currently, the local government isn’t even sure how many residential rental units are located in the borough. That’s information that will be obtained through this ordinance that the committee believes will be useful to police, fire companies and ambulance crews.

"We have no idea," Nye said about the number of apartments in Lititz. "We’ve ‘guesstimated’ 600. There may be more, there may be less."

Nye and his fellow committee members are quick to point out that this ordinance is not meant to be an attack on landlords.

"Most landlords here are good landlords, the ones who where at the meeting," he said. "We enjoyed the public feedback. They made a lot of good points, and now we’re researching those points."

Cost was one of the main concerns among landlords at the meeting, and Fulginiti emphasized that this is not a money-making venture for the borough. In fact, by law, the government is not permitted to use inspection programs for income.

"We’re still in committee right now," he said, "so a lot of things can change. We are digesting everything that was said, so we may be making some adjustments. Landlords thought $50 fee per apartment per year was high."

"Set aside the cost for a second, and consider the value of this safety measure," Oettel pointed out. "Once you set aside the cost, there wasn’t nearly the consternation. I really believe the majority of the crowd there, as landlords, didn’t think it was a bad idea. If cost can be addressed, we might have something."

Henry H. Gibbel, CEO of Lititz Mutual Insurance Co. and owner of a few rental properties, said he understands what the borough is trying to do, but also understands that people are concerned with over-regulation.

"I don’t think (an ordinance) would be too much of an impact on legitimate landlords who take care of their properties," he said. "But we definitely need more information, and it needs to be thought-out further. There is a lot of interest in the community."

"Borough officials handled it well," he said, adding that he hopes borough council will take its time and proceed with caution.

Dennis Beck, of Dennis E. Beck Real Estate, which manages approximately 130 apartments and commercial units in the Lititz area, said safety inspections are something landlords should do voluntarily, without the need for a new law, but the reality is that not everyone would do it on their own.

Still, realizing the discussion is in a preliminary stage, he’s curtailing his opinion of a possible ordinance until more adjustments are made and more information is available.

"It’s a little early to talk about it," he said. "We’re going to have to see what the actual proposed ordinance is. I hope that they (the borough committee) take to heart some of the input items they were given."

"We’re not looking to soak landlords or punish people for renting," Fulginiti said. "We’re not asking people to do expensive remodeling projects or anything. It’s really pretty small."

At the end of the meeting, the committee felt like there was good dialogue. Fulginiti said the borough does intend to proceed with something, "but we want that ordinance to be a good ordinance."

"I hope that we conveyed that we are working in the community’s best interest," he added. "This is not an attack on landlords."

The next committee meeting is Jan. 24, and Fulginiti expects to have a public meeting on the subject sometime in February or March. More ORDINANCE, page A3

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