First Posted: 7/11/2013
Pittston landlords are on notice.
At its monthly meeting Wednesday night, Council is expected to update a city ordinance requiring bi-annual safety and fire inspections of all rental units and businesses.
The purpose, ultimately, is to protect the health and safety of residents and to clean up dilapidated and neglected properties, said Joe Moskovitz, Pittston City administrator. He said it is part of the city’s neighborhood’s initiative.
According to the draft ordinance, each unit will be inspected for proper use, cooking hood fire protection systems, portable extinguishers, fire protection systems including sprinkler systems, fire, smoke and safety alarms, emergency power systems, exit and emergency area lighting, storage of hazardous and non-hazardous materials, stacking and storage of combustible materials, exit and emergency doors, records of evacuation plans and fire drills, records of fire protection and alarm system tests and anti-backflow device test records.
Local realtor Charles Adonizo of Atlas Realty said the ordinance is a positive step.
“It’s good to ensure the quality of all the units,” he said. “One bad rental property in a neighborhood can ruin the whole neighborhood.”
He said there were several fatal fires in rental units over the past decade in Pittston and inspections may have prevented them.
“The outcome may have been different if they had a $5 smoke detector,” he said.
He said a lot of cities are implementing such laws.
“It has to come to that,” he said. “In a way, it will make the landlords that are not up to par bring everything up to par or stop renting. It’s good for everyone. It’s really a win, win.”
One downtown landlord, who asked not to be identifed, said the city was “nitpicking.”
“They need to fix the current problems rather than finding new ones,” she said.
Moskovitz said the old ordinance didn’t have the manpower needed to conduct such inspections.
The current inspection staff has a full-time employee, Harry Smith, and a part-time employee who is also part of the fire department. Moskovitz hopes to add another full-time and another part-time staffer under a restructured Code Enforcement office.
There are a minimum of 1,800 units in the city and Moskovitz believes that number will increase once the list is compiled. He said with the current staff, there would have to be seven inspections a day for five days a week, 52 weeks a year.
“We can’t handle that right now with the staff we have,” he said.
Moskovitz said with added staff, he can get the number of inspections down to a more managable three a day. He said the city may also bring back the position of Health Inspector.
Council passed an ordinance in 2007 that required registration of all tenants and inspection of all privately-owned rental properties and businesses.
At the time, Councilman Joe McLean said council wanted to ensure that properties are in good repair and free of debris and to ensure the safety of the tenants.
But in 2009, the ordinance became ground zero in a political battle.
Former Mayor Joseph Keating was running to keep his seat as mayor and firefighter Joe Kelly accused that administration of not conducting fire inspections at commercial businesses until after the election because Keating didn’t want to make business owners angry.
Kelley said that during a meeting to discuss policies for a fire inspection ordinance, the three men interested in working as the city’s fire inspectors were told by former City Clerk Ron Mortimer not to conduct any fire inspections at such places.
Keating did not attend the meeting, but Kelly believed Mortimer was delivering a message on behalf of the mayor.
Keating, who denied the allegations, resigned after losing the primary to current Mayor Jason Klush. Mortimer also denied the allegations, but did acknowledge suggesting that inspectors wait until later in the year to start the inspections of the residential rental properties until landlords are informed about the program.
Under the updated ordinance, landlords will be required to obtain a Certificate of Occupancy from the inspections.
Council will discuss a fee schedule. One proposal calls for the initial per residential unit Inspection Certificate to cost $71, which is a pro-rated $21 for 2013 and $50 for 2014. After Dec. 31, 2014, the fee will be $50 a year or $100 bi-annually. Re-inspections because of violations will cost $15. Commercial, industrial, educational and institutional certificates will range from $100 to $300, depending on the size.
During an inspection, according to the ordinance, if a violation is discovered, written notice will be given and the landlord will have 30 days to make repairs or fix the violation. If the violations aren’t corrected by then, fines may be levied.
The measure is considered part of the city’s Neighborhood Housing Stabilization and Development Initiative.
Officials have said substandard, deteriorating and unoccupied residences and street crowding causes the tax base to decline.
The neighborhood initiative’s goal is to make improvements to combat such problems. Sprucing up neighborhoods, acquiring tax sale and foreclosure properties, tax rebates, creating a housing impact team and imposing a moratorium on converting single homes to apartments are planned.
“This ordinance is about holding the landlord’s feet to the fire,” Moskovitz said.