Pittsburgh City Council's public hearing on a controversial rental permit program was filled with opposition from area landlords.
The Residential Housing Rental Permit Program would require that landlords register each rental unit with the city for a sliding-scale fee of $45 to $65 per unit each year. Landlords would also submit their properties for a 34-point inspection, occurring every 3 to 5 years.
According to the 2010 U.S. Census, there are nearly 82,000 occupied rental units within city limits. Over a five-year period (not accounting for holidays), that means that the city would have to inspect over 300 units each working week, or about 63 per day.
At minimum, the program would amass around $3.7 million in registration fees each year. A proposed budget from 2014 suggests that the program will cost $1.9 million yearly. Council president Bruce Kraus declined to comment on the program's budget and revenue.
City Council passed the measure in 2015, but it was never implemented. The Landlord Service Bureau and a group of local realty companies sued the city in 2016 to bar the program, and that lawsuit is still held up in court.
Plaintiffs say that the rental permit program violates a host of laws, including the constitutional right to freedom from an unlawful search, a tenant’s right to privacy, and the city’s Home Rule Charter, which limits the ability of the city to regulate businesses.
Wednesday’s hearing was court-ordered and conducted to discuss regulations for the implementation and enforcement of the program. “That is all that is before this council. It is not the merit or the dismerit of a rental registry. This council has already voted in agreement that it is a prudent, and wise course of action,” said Kraus.
Regardless, during public comment 15 speakers--all landlords--expressed opposition to the program, a clear majority of those who took the podium.
They said expectations and fees are too high, especially for those who maintain only a few rental units. They agree with the idea of a citywide inspection effort, but they worry that costs will raise rent and push tenants out of the city.
"It seems like these regulations are actually built to help these new buildings with greater than 100 units to get the lower fee, [with] new paint, new concrete, new ducting systems,” said landlord Ron Sobol of Point Breeze. “The independent small landlord cannot exist with a checklist like that.”
Sobol referred to that sliding-scale for registration fees, which charges $65 per unit for landlords who maintain 10 or fewer units but $45 per unit for those who maintain over 100 units. In Erie, Pa., Sobol noted, landlords are charged a flat fee of $40 per unit, regardless of the number of units, in its residential rental registration. There’s a flat fee of $35 per unit in Cleveland, and $15 to $25 per unit in Morgantown.
Another concern for the landlords is the 34-point inspection, standards they say also benefit large, newer apartment complexes that have the funds to keep units up to code.
“Please consider how your own home would stand up to this scrutiny, and how much it would cost you to fix,” noted realtor Charlene Haislip of North Point Breeze. “Each and every one of you has to have some sort of peeling, chipping, flaking, cracked something in your homes."
Most small landlords rent out property in converted Pittsburgh houses, which can date back decades. They’ll never meet these standards, say the landlords, and their fixes require parts and services that are much more expensive than those for newer buildings.
“The cost of the cosmetic standards that this ordinance seems to support is an unnecessary burden on landlords,” said tenant and landlord lawyer Kathryn Wakefield of Shadyside. “There are enforcement mechanisms that my clients rely on very successfully, the Health Department and PLI [Office of Permits, Licenses, and Inspections].”
Others expressed concerns about releasing a landlord’s home address and contact information, another provision of the program, which they said could threaten the landlord’s safety from a disgruntled tenant.
And some took issue with the Good Landlord Academy, a training session that would teach landlords about safety, fair housing, and the services available to them. Landlords who attend the session would get half off their apartment registration fees. Landlords said that the training—at least 6 hours long—is too time-consuming.
Others pointed out what they called unfair exemptions: college dormitories, hotels, public housing units, and mortgaged single-family homes.
But supporters of the program said that the fees and inspections are a small price to pay to root out absentee landlords—also known as “slumlords”—who maintain rental properties with sometimes unlivable conditions and who don’t face appropriate repercussions.
“The City of Pittsburgh has a horrific number of units in very, very bad quality. We get calls from tenants every day: ceilings falling in, floors falling in, bathtubs not working, tenants living for 25 days without hot water,” Ronelle Guy said, a tenant advocate from Perry South. “And there’s no real vehicle to make sure these problems are fixed.”
They said that provisions, like requiring a landlord’s home address and the Good Landlord Academy, hold out-of-town realty companies accountable for the health and safety of their tenants.
“If you are owning a property … that you are not able to bring up to code, then you are not able to satisfy your responsibility to the tenants to upkeep their safety,” said Bill Bartlett from the Landless Peoples Alliance in Perry Hilltop.
Of three city council members who attended the public hearing in full, Kraus was the only one to vocally support the rental permit program. "I believe that rental property is a business. I think it is deserving of licensing. And I do believe that it is within our right to do so,” he said.
Councilman Anthony Coghill said he doesn’t support the program. “As a landlord, I’m opposed to it,” he explained. “I just feel like this is another layer of government that stops people from purchasing and renting in my area. I guess I just feel like it’s almost another tax.”
Councilwoman Darlene Harris didn’t take a firm position; she elected to hear the judge’s decision before forming an opinion.