City nears inspection requirement
SHAMOKIN - City council is moving forward with ordinance that would require most residential rental properties pass inspection by the city code officer before being rented.
A unanimous 5-0 vote Tuesday gave preliminary approval to the inspection requirement. If a second majority vote is had, the requirement will become official and would be added to existing city ordinance regarding landlord/tenant registration.
Approximately six city landlords attended Tuesday's meeting to question city officials about the proposal and voice concerns over the potential ramifications, namely cost.
Under the proposal, occupied residential rental units must be inspected upon vacancy beginning March 1, meaning that after a tenant moves out an inspection is required before it can be rented again.
An inspection would also be required for any unit that already is vacant as of March 1 before being rented.
The inspection would be guided by a checklist that is being created by Rick Bozza, city code officer, who said he would share an example checklist with city landlords.
Passing grade would mean Bozza issues an inspection certificate to a landlord. Any violations identified in the inspection must be explained in writing and must be corrected before a unit is re-inspected and is deemed eligible to be rented to a new tenant.
The cost of the inspection is $50. The first re-inspection is free of charge. Any additional re-inspections cost $50 each.
Concerns were raised by city landlords about the potential frequency of inspections and related costs, with some pointing to a $25 landlord/tenant registration fee enacted last year and required for each residential rental unit.
While the language of the proposed inspection requirement currently says inspections must follow tenant turnover, Bozza seemed flexible about the potential frequency for the inspections.
City landlord Robert Gilligbauer asked how the proposal would apply to rooming houses. Rooms are turned over frequently in that rental model, he pointed out, and inspections with each new tenant would be costly to landlords.
Solicitor H. Robert Mattis said the current proposal does not address the issue of rooming houses. Councilman R. Craig Rhoades said that issue must also be researched and addressed. Steve Bartos, city clerk, said he believed inspections for rooming houses are covered by the Department of Labor and Industry and its hotel/motel regulations.
City landlords Mike Shevitski and Fred Seroski both expressed support for inspections, with Seroski saying he'd support annual inspections if council sought to pursue them.
Shevitski was concerned with tenants who skip out on rent due to one landlord, only to jump to another rental property, and continue to repeat the pattern while leaving landlords high and dry. He suggested names of such deadbeats be published in the newspaper to prevent them from continuing the behavior and perhaps keep them out of the city.
Larry Burda, city landlord, took exception with the inspection requirement. He said it allows for too many inspections on a single property and doesn't address blighted properties that are not being rented. Those properties should also be inspected, he said.
Burda said landlords pay taxes, generate business in the city and already pay high fees for sewage and other utilities. Their clientele are often either poor or on fixed incomes.
"This is gonna be so much money. How can we afford it? Do we take it out of the tenants' hides?" Burda asked.
"This seems like a financial thing going on. It doesn't seem like a safety thing," he said.
Councilman Bill Milbrand questioned Burda about fire-damaged properties he owns on the 700 block of North Shamokin Street. Those properties are next to the vacant lot where the city had a pair of buildings torn down last year following a partial building collapse.
When Burda's properties caught fire, it was discovered a squatter was living in a property on the other end of the block, Milbrand claimed.
Burda said he was "unhappy with the situation" at the fire-damaged properties and that he would be contacting "counsel," though he elaborated no further on what he would be doing with the properties. As for the squatter, he said he wasn't aware of anyone living there.
"The reason we're doing the inspections and registrations is to try to clean up the city," Milbrand said. "There are a lot of rental properties in the city that are substandard."
Milbrand acknowledged it's not only landlords who own problem properties, and he also said there are landlords who comply with code regulations and take care of what they own. But, he said, "too many landlords" aren't cleaning up the apartments and homes they rent.
Dave Bubernack, who said he owns 10 properties, also expressed concern over cost. He suggested that when any property changes hands, not just rental properties, that they be inspected. If a home is sold, the city should inspect it before the sale is finalized, he said.
"We can look into that," Rhoades said. "That's something we can look into to adopt into ordinance."
Upon further questioning from Burda, Mattis said the inspection requirements would not apply to properties owned by Shamokin Housing Authority because it is under federal oversight.