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Pittsburgh sued over housing voucher ordinance

| Friday, Jan. 15, 2016, 3:56 p.m.

An association representing Pittsburgh apartment owners on Friday sued the city, contending an ordinance that City Council approved last year is illegal because it requires landlords to accept federal housing vouchers.

The Apartment Association of Metropolitan Pittsburgh, which filed the suit in Common Pleas Court, is the fourth organization to sue the city in recent weeks over ordinances adopted in late 2015.

One of the law's sponsors said the apartment association is misinterpreting the ordinance.

Councilman Daniel Lavelle of the Hill District said it does not force landlords to accept Section 8 housing choice vouchers. It prohibits discrimination based solely on the vouchers for low-income tenants, he said.

“All this bill does is give someone a right to go before the (Pittsburgh Commission on Human Relations) and appeal if they feel they've been discriminated solely on the reason that they had a voucher,” Lavelle said. “I would have the same right to appeal if I feel that landlord X did not rent to me because I was gay or because I was an African-American.”

Jim Eichenlaub, executive director of the apartment association, said the association interprets the ordinance to mean landlords must accept vouchers, a voluntary federal housing subsidy program managed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and administered by government agencies such as the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh.

By accepting vouchers, Eichenlaub said, landlords must enter into contracts that carry requirements, such as apartment inspections and lease agreements.

Pittsburgh's home rule charter prohibits the city from forcing private businesses to do that, he said. The lawsuit seeks to overturn the ordinance and asks for an injunction to stop its enforcement, pending a court ruling. The ordinance took effect Dec. 18.

Pittsburgh Solicitor Lourdes Sanchez Ridge declined to comment, saying she has not read the association's complaint.

“The landlord has to enter into a contract with the administrator or the distributor of the voucher,” Eichenlaub said. “This is imposing business practices on an apartment owner. (Council doesn't) have the authority to impose those business practices.”

It is the same legal argument three organizations made in lawsuits over unrelated city ordinances.

An Allegheny County judge ruled in two of the cases that council had no authority to require building owners to provide training for security guards, or to make businesses provide employees with paid sick leave.

Judge Joseph M. James struck down both ordinances.

Pittsburgh and the Service Employees International Union, which lobbied the city for the ordinances, this week appealed James' rulings to Commonwealth Court.

Sam Williamson, SEIU's Western Pennsylvania district director, said the business groups are trying to interfere with the city's ability to govern.

“We remain confident that both (ordinances) are legal under state law,” he said. “We are confident on the city's prospects of winning under appeal.”

The third pending suit alleges that an ordinance requiring landlords to register rental properties and purchase an annual permit ranging from $45 to $65 is unconstitutional.

Bob Bauder is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-765-2312 or

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