Northampton Press

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Council debates rental ordinance

Wednesday, April 11, 2018 by LINDA WOJCIECHOWSKI Special to The Press in Local News

Northampton Borough Council members differ on the necessity of imposing a new rental property ordinance.

Councilman Robert McHale had provided the current draft of the ordinance to council members for review at the March 15 council meeting, with discussion of the draft on the April 5 council meeting agenda.

At the meeting, Councilwoman Julia Kutzler offered an impassioned plea for the passage of the ordinance, in support of the low-income families who reside in rental units.

“The government has to intervene when there are issues of safety that need to be addressed,” she said. “They cannot afford attorneys to fight their issues. It is a landlord’s responsibility to ensure and comply with safety regulations and law.”

The new ordinance would require landlords to pay a registration fee for each unit, to allow a borough code officer to schedule inspections of the property, to pay inspection fees and to correct unsafe conditions.

“A human being should be able to lay down in his home at night and not be worried about electrical issues, plumbing issues and whether or not the windows go up and down,” Kutzler said.

She also supported a provision of the ordinance that addresses the behavior of tenants when there are repeated nuisance incidents reported by neighbors.

Kutzler compared the rental registration fees and scheduled safety inspections to the state requirements for auto inspections and the planning and zoning ordinances for new property developments, which are understood to be necessary.

She cited a number of examples of safety issues she has learned of at rental properties.

“If you need to know, I will tell you where they are,” she said.

Current borough laws are not sufficient, she said, because tenants often cannot afford to hire a lawyer to represent themselves.

“There is a face to poverty,” she said. “Look in that face and make sure that all people are protected with safe, secure homes to live in.”

During the public comment period, Joan Marinkovits, Newport Avenue resident and former magisterial district judge, read aloud a March 31 letter she had sent to council members and borough officials in which she listed her objections to the rental ordinance draft. Among her comments were that the ordinance would require the creation of a new municipal job for rental code enforcement and a schedule of fees and fines, which she termed “unnecessary revenue” meant to support the salary of that new employee. She also said unit inspections should only be done when a tenant has left and the unit is empty, not when it is still occupied.

Councilman Anthony Lopsonzski Sr. described the tiered system of annual registration fees proposed. A landlord with one to three rental units would pay $13.33 per unit; four to eight units would cost $12.50 per unit; nine to 15 units would cost $10.20 per unit; 16 to 30 units would cost $8.33; and more than 30 units would cost $8 per unit.

An earlier version of the ordinance had called for annual fees of $40 per unit.

Lopsonzski supports the proposed legislation.

“We are trying to accommodate some of the things people pointed out at past meetings,” he said. “This program is not designed to make a job for someone. It is designed to give someone the authority and enforcement power to make it better for the people who live there. That’s what this is all about.”

Councilman Edward Pany proposed a simplified ordinance.

“When a tenant vacates a unit, it shall be inspected before it can be rented again,” he said. “In the interim, we have a building inspector, we have a health inspector and we have a code inspector who look at buildings presently. They are competent enough to address problems in the interim. That’s a simplified version I think would be acceptable to most people.”

Councilman Anthony Pristash agreed. He said the draft began as a way to address safety concerns and blighted properties in the borough and has expanded to address future economic growth and living situations among neighbors. He also expressed concerns about the added cost to landlords who will pass the cost on to tenants, many of whom are living at or near the poverty level.

“Let’s be smart about this and get the people who aren’t compliant,” Pristash said, pointing to the blighted properties. He called for a “plain and simple” ordinance and also asked borough Manager LeRoy Brobst to provide an accounting of what the projected administrative and other costs of implementing the proposed legislation would be.

Council voted to place the ordinance on the agenda for its April 19 meeting. If the proposed ordinance is approved at that time, it will be advertised for public review before public comment will again be called for, followed by a final vote on enactment. If it receives final approval, it is expected to take effect Jan. 1, 2019, allowing time to notify rental property owners and tenants of the new regulations.

Upcoming events approved by council at the meeting:

• April 12: Race Against Hate, 10 a.m.-noon, sponsored by the Northampton Area High School’s National Honor Society, along borough streets.

• April 14: The borough has scheduled a two-hour paper shredding event beginning 10 a.m. in the parking lot of the Northampton Banquet & Event Center, 1601 Laubach Ave. Councilman Anthony Lopsonzski Sr. said the event is open to everyone, with a limit of four bags or boxes of paper per household.

• July 18-20: Northampton Assembly of God will conduct evening worship services, open to the public, in a tent to be erected on the grounds of the 26th Street playground.