Turning up the heat on renters
Millvale Mayor James Burn is fed up with Millvale renters who sell drugs, play loud music and constantly fight each other. He wants them out of the community.
And, if landlords don't cooperate, he wants them out too.
Burn plans to use an ambitious 5-year-old ordinance to evict problem tenants, and landlords who rent to them, because, he said, they are throwing a monkey wrench into the borough's revitalization plans.
The ordinance, passed in 1998 but as yet unused, allows the borough to evict "disruptive" tenants, and punish landlords who rent to them by revoking their right to rent property in the borough. Burn wants to begin enforcing the ordinance by the first of the year.
Perhaps the most aggressive provision of the rule is one which bans problem tenants from renting property in the borough if they've already been evicted for disruptive behavior. The behavior need not warrant a criminal complaint to be considered disruptive.
Not everyone in town is excited about the law.
Charles Pupich, whose property management firm manages dozens of properties in Millvale, said the law unfairly places more restrictions on landlords and tenants than it does homeowners.
"I don't have any problem abiding by the borough's rules. All I'm saying is, make both the same. Don't penalize me for something without treating the guy next to me the same way," Pupich said.
Burn said the borough will go after disruptive homeowners as well, but added that the majority of complaints about disruptive residents come from rental units.
Burn said the borough's plans for economic revival, which hinge on recent rebuilding efforts along the riverfront and renovation of the borough's central business district, could be derailed by disruptive tenants. He used a gardening analogy to illustrate the plan.
"It risks choking us like a weed, and we're going to pull that weed out of the ground," Burn said.
Under the rule, landlords would get "three strikes" for a particular tenant and then would be subject to have their rental licenses revoked. A strike can include a drug arrest, a noise complaint or domestic disputes that require police intervention.
The borough can direct a landlord to evict a tenant after two strikes.
A police officer would determine whether a complaint should justify a strike against both the landlord and tenant.
Burn promised the law would be used judiciously but said some landlords could face the weight of the law if they don't cooperate with authorities.
"This is a gentle nudge to the landlord to remind the tenants of their obligations, and if they refuse to remind the tenants, it becomes a push," he said.
District Justice Robert Dzvonick, who currently hears housing cases from Millvale, said it's obvious which tenants are problems.
"It's pretty simple to tell if a guy's down on his luck, but when you have chronic complaints -- loud music, people coming at all hours of the night, you're damn right the light clicks on. You know something stinks in Denmark there," Dzvonick said.
Millvale is one of a small but growing number of municipalities holding landlords responsible for tenant behavior, said Rick Schuettler of the Pennsylvania League of Cities and Municipalities.
The ordinance is modeled after a similar law passed in Bloomsburg, Columbia County. Other municipalities around the state, including Lewisburg, and locally, East Pittsburgh, have adopted similar measures.
The Bloomsburg law, passed in 1993, was meant to regulate tenant behavior in off-campus housing rented by college students and was challenged by a landlord as unconstitutional. The law was upheld by a U.S. District Court judge in 1995.
Witold Walczak, executive director of the Pittsburgh branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, had no comment yesterday because he had not reviewed the ordinance.
Burn said he wasn't afraid the ordinance would be challenged in court by a tenant or landlord.
"They can explain themselves to the court if they want to fight us why they've caused such a pain in the first place. That's fine with us," he said.