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Carlisle rental housing ordinance satisfies neither side

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More than two years after Carlisle Borough Council passed a rental housing ordinance designed to better control blight and neighbor disputes, neither side is happy with the results.

The ordinance, in effect since January 2012, was crafted to spell out the rights and obligations of landlords and tenants, while providing a path to rental housing inspections, a main point of emphasis.

Other provisions include registration and management terms for landlords and tenants; a requirement that landlords notify the borough within five days of changes to management, tenants or ownership; and a provision requiring landlords to hire a property manager if they live more than 25 miles away.

So far? Results are decidedly mixed.

“They’re trying to make a better climate and the ordinance and the methods they’re trying to use do not work,” said Rita Dallago, executive director of the Pennsylvania Residential Owners Association. “We need to be better at working together, between the rental housing providers and the powers that be within the borough.”

As in other urban areas, the most controversial aspect of the Carlisle ordinance pertains to inspections. Borough officials studied mandatory inspections and rejected that idea. Instead, landlords can request a voluntary inspection, for which they receive a special seal upon successful completion.

Borough resident Roger Spitz, a 2013 candidate for mayor, doesn’t think it is working.

“I don’t think voluntarily these people will comply,” he said. “Once you’re a slum landlord, the property is going to deteriorate and this brings blight into the neighborhood and blight brings drugs and drugs brings chaos. I think landlords should be held accountable for what goes on in their buildings.”

Taking another look

The borough’s finance and public works committee met recently to consider what is and isn’t working and to possibly tweak the ordinance. Councilwoman Linda Cecconello stressed that all but 13 landlords — or 98 percent — have complied with the registration aspect.

“That’s a good thing. It’s a lot bigger number than we anticipated,” said Curtis Hetrick, a member of the East Side Neighbors Association, a community group that backed a rental ordinance.

In one of the improvements to be made, officials will make that rental information available to police officers who encounter problems during off hours.

“We keep looking at it. We have staff reviewing the ordinances,” Cecconello said. “I’m hoping we can come up with something that is maybe a little stronger.”

However, mandatory inspections by borough employees was ruled out three years ago and remains very unlikely. With 4,000 to 5,000 rental units in Carlisle, Cecconello said, it is a matter of simple economics.

“We could do like a rolling inspection, but even if we did it eight hours a day, five days a week, it was going to take a couple years to get through the (4,000) to 5,000 units and then start over again,” she said.

Some form of a “three strikes and you’re out” clause was another popular request when the ordinance was being crafted, Cecconello said. That idea was also rejected because of the amount of record keeping it would require.

Rowdy students

Recent issues involved boisterous students who rented apartments in a residential area. A meeting in April was held to try to calm rising tensions, Cecconello said.

“When the students come back next year, there is going to be a very serious discussion ... of what is expected of individuals who are living in the borough,” she added. “They’ll discuss what it means to try and keep your property kept up.”

Dallago would like to see a complaint-driven ordinance, with more input from PROA. Formed in 1986 to lobby for rental owners, PROA represents more than 8,000 landlords and property managers who control more than 100,000 rental units.

With chapters around the state, including one in Camp Hill, Dallago said the organization can help address urban rental problems.

“The association is working to make rental housing providers more professional,” she said. “It’s better if we can work together. In Erie, they contact the association when it’s a rental property and the association tries to work with that owner to address the issues.”

Rental ordinances vary by location

Several neighboring towns have rental ordinances on the books, although most of them are more strict than the Carlisle ordinance.

Mechanicsburg, Shippensburg and Newville all have ordinances. They include registration, inspections and fees. Rental units must be inspected every three years in Mechanicsburg, where council established a pre-inspection checklist for landlords.

Newville licenses all rental units, with at least one inspection required per five-year cycle. Also, the borough requires landlords to live within 10 miles of Newville or designate a property manager.

Shippensburg requires inspections every three years after the initial inspection and also sets “minimum area requirements” for apartments exceeding three occupants.

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