Proposed rental rules rile borough landlords

By on January 15, 2014

About 100 attend meeting Tuesday; local attorney claims proposal unenforcable

Ephrata Borough wants to quell disruptive behavior among renters that occupy 2,325 rental units in the borough.

But a 16-page proposal ­ which would make landlords legally responsible for their tenants’ bad behavior ­ drew steep criticism from an audience of about 100 people last night at Pioneer Fire Co. last night.

Larry Burkholder, a landlord from Ephrata, echoed the reoccurring meeting theme: “It’s unrealistic and unfair to demand landlords to be watchdogs over renters.”

“It’s almost like you’re asking us to sleep with these tenants and police them without a badge to do anything about anything,” Burkholder said.

The core of the unofficial proposal unveiled Tuesday night is aimed at forcing landlords to react to disruptive behavior that is defined in the document.

It sets a “three-strike limit” on tenants’ disruptive behavior and also attempts to crack down on absentee landlords.

The proposal obliges landlords to evict three-strike tenants or face fines. It would also require a rental unit owner living more than 15 miles outside the borough to hire a manager and demand that tenants’ names be posted on the property.

Robert Thompson, borough manager, said similar ordinances are in place in boroughs across the country and nearby in Columbia, Denver, Elizabethtown, Manheim and in Lancaster City.

“It’s not a new concept but it is new to Ephrata,” Thompson said.

Thompson said the unadvertised, voluntary meeting was intended to discuss the proposal ­ that was posted on the borough’s website and solicit public comment and suggestions.

Officials moved the meeting from borough hall to the fire house to accommodate the large audience made up mostly of landlords.

About 38 percent of dwellings in Ephrata Borough are rental units – which is about 8 percent higher than average, said Nancy Harris, planning and engineering manager.

Harris informed the audience that a study ­dating back to March 2010 ­ found that there is a greater incidence of problems with the maintenance and upkeep of residential properties which are not owner-occupied.

“Records also indicate there are a greater number of disturbances at residential rental units than all other properties combined,” Harris said.

But Ephrata attorney Nicholas Ermolovich, who represents several commercial landlords and property managers, challenged the study Tuesday.

He suggested the proposed ordinance is flawed, illegal, unenforceable and essentially incomprehensible.

Ermolovich highlighted the nearly 700-word section that describes “disruptive behavior.”

“You’re putting the landlord in the unique position of prosecuting, enforcing and defending this ordinance,” Ermolovich said. “We don’t know if it’s unconstitutional or legal to do so.”

Ermolovich stressed that the plan lacked “any sort of guidance.”

Included in the disruptive conduct defintion are: drunkenness and consumption alcoholic; unlawful deposit of trash, damage to or destruction of property, the obstruction of public roads, streets, highways or sidewalks, interference with emergency or police services; “and/or that is so loud, untimely as to the time of day, offensive and/or nuisance causing.”

“Is there anything in this ordinance that defines what offensive means?,” Ermolovich asked. “I know people in this community that would be offended if they saw a Confederate flag in their window. Are you going to issue citations for disruptive behavior if you see a Confederate flag on a window or a car or on a bumper sticker?”

Harris said the borough’s study shows that that code violations are also generally less severe at owner-occupied units as compared to residential rental units.

The proposal would require a landlord obtain an annual residential rental license for each residential rental unit.

It also requires that the owner pay a registration fee and provide personal information or the name, address and phone number of a manager or responsible agent for landlords living 15 miles from the borough.

Paradise Township resident Ben Fisher, who owns a rental property on Duke Street, said he drives to Ephrata each day and opposes the 15-mile rule.

“I just don’t think 15 miles is reasonable, it should at least 20 or 25 (miles),” Fisher said. “Otherwise I’ve got to hire a property manager and I know I can do a better job than somebody else.”

The audience appeared to object to almost every item in the 836-word section on landlord duties, which maintains that it’s the owners responsibility to maintain all premises in a “clean, sanitary and safe condition.”

Landlords are to “be aware, record and act to eliminate disruptive conduct in rental units.”

They are are also responsible to “ensure payment of utilities to the borough including sewer, electric, water, trash and ensure that such vital utilities are provided.”

Property owners are also to ensure that each residential rental unit is occupied by only one family.

John Stewart, a landlord from Maple Street in Ephrata, suggested that the borough help force renters to pay utility bills instead of forcing landlords to pay their renter’s debts.

“The borough owns the utilities and controls the method of collecting,” Stewart said. “If the borough chooses not to go after the tenant and the landlord pays it, the tenant’s credit report is never blemished.”

He said the tenant can then move to another rental unit in Ephrata causing more problems for another landlord.

“The borough should also assist in bringing their (utility) billing system current and terminate electric service to tenants who don’t pay their bills,” Stewart said.

The proposal states that any owner or responsible agent who ignores the rental license requirement within 30 days from a violation notice warning could be subject to not less than $500 for each residential rental unit, lose their rental license, and even face jail time.

Brian Hoffman is a property manager with Arthur M. Yeager Agency who is responsible for 200 rental units in Ephrata. He believes the ordinance is unnecessary.

“A Pennsylvania Association of Realtors lease, which I know pretty well, gives the landlords virtually everything on that addendum,” Hoffman said. “It gives the landlord every possible legal and enforceable requirement to deal with disruptive tenants.”

Disruptive conduct must be defined by a police officer or the code enforcement officer but it does not require that a person be arrested by police to be considered to have violated the rental agreement.

Renters must allow the code enforcement officer to inspect the property “at reasonable times” and not allow persons not on the lease to reside in the unit. It stipulates that only one family live in each rental unit.

Ron Chapman, who owns 44 rental units in Ephrata managed by Hoffman, said he flew in today from Ft. Lauderdale to attend the meeting.

He labeled the proposal a “discouraging Catch-22” that would require him “to hire another person or two to deal with.”

“There is no need for new regulation if you enforce the ones you’ve got,” Chapman said.

Gary Landis of Ephrata offered a somewhat differing opinion from the audience but was equally critical of the proposal.

“Everyone talks about the lack of affordable housing in Lancaster County and we actually have that in Ephrata,” Landis said. “But this ordinance will actually make it less affordable and increases the cost of business.”

Landis said it is inappropriate to “discriminate against tenants” who deserve the same respect and privileges as landowners.

“They should also have the same responsibilities and suffer the same consequences as landlords, homeowners and anyone else,” Landis said.

He said enough restrictions already exist to ensure renters act responsibly.

“It just isn’t right to continue to use landlords to babysit parents and enforce the consequences for not following the rules,” Landis said.

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