Facts and Figures about Pittsburgh’s anticipated 2016 Rental Registration Ordinance

By Bradley S. Dornish, Esquire

In November of 2014, the Pittsburgh City Council had a public hearing on Ordinance 2014-1020, the Residential Rental Housing Registration Ordinance which would impose on each residential rental unit in the city a $65.00 per year registration fee. That hearing was well attended by landlords and others who objected to the ordinance as an attempt to impose a new tax only on residential rental units.

The proposed ordinance 2014-1020 is based on the draft ordinance negotiated between the city and groups which sued the City over the last attempted rental registration, but eliminates any inspections, removes the escrow of funds collected and other key terms of that draft ordinance, and leaves only a $65.00 per unit per year registration fee, increased from $12.00 per year in the prior draft ordinance, with exemption for hotels, motels, bed and breakfast establishments expanded to include public housing units, dormitories, certified rehabilitation facilities and long term medical care facilities. The ordinance proposed also allows owners who do not reside in Allegheny County to designate a responsible local agent for acceptance of legal notices, or to accept certified mail of legal notices at the owner’s address.

The ordinance was deferred for one year, and is now pending in the Council’s Public Safety Services Standing Committee, where it can be voted into law at any Standing Committee meeting or regular Council Meeting. No further public hearings are anticipated, and the revenue from the ordinance, anticipated to be $1,620,000 per year, is reflected as Account #42339 in the pending City Budget.

On November 18th, I attended the Standing Committee meeting, and was given five minutes to address the members of council present. I advised council that I was a City building owner, landlord, director of ACRE and Chairman of the board of PROA. I also advised council that I was a lawyer who represented plaintiff organizations against the City in 2007 and 2008 when we fought against the registration. I told them I strongly believed the proposed ordinance would raise revenue beyond the cost of registration, and therefore constitute a tax passed in violation of the Local Tax Enabling Act.

I reminded council members present that Act required state legislative approval of the increase in Pittsburgh’s Occupational Privilege tax just a few years ago, and the same would be required of any new type of tax. I also reminded them that we had received information from former City Solicitor George Specter just a few years ago that the cost to the city then of rental registration was between six and twelve dollars per year.

More than one member of council was supportive of my position, but a vote is anticipated and it will likely pass before the end of 2015. Contact the members of City Council where you own properties to express your objection to this proposed illegal tax, and your willingness to support Acre’s and other landlord groups’ fight against this tax once again.

PROA Regroups for the Long Haul on Student Housing Legislation

By Bradley S. Dornish, Esquire

After over a year of hard work finding the right language, a committed sponsor in the legislature, and the right timing to move forward, we had in HB 809 sponsored by Representative Sue Helm a vehicle we believed would protect students who wanted to rent off campus housing and the landlords who wanted to rent to them from arbitrary, biased and prejudicial local ordinances being passed in many cities and towns throughout Pennsylvania.

Some, like the City of Pittsburgh’s ordinance, limit the number of unrelated persons who can live in a single rental home or apartment. The magic number in Pittsburgh is three, and we have seen landlords with even four or five bedroom rental properties prosecuted by city code enforcement officers and fined hundreds of thousands of dollars, yes hundreds of thousands for renting to more than three unrelated persons. Other municipalities like Greensburg license student housing separately from other rental units, dictate in which areas of town students are permitted to live, and require that a student rental unit not be within 500 feet of another student rental.

HB 809 addresses both of these types of arbitrary restrictions, and if passed, will make ordinances which discriminate on the basis of matriculation subject to being invalidated by court action. On July 20th, a hearing was scheduled in front of the House Municipal Government Committee, and PROA affiliates from West Chester to Harrisburg to Erie and Meadville, and of course Pittsburgh, prepared to testify.

My written testimony traced the problems I have seen with Pittsburgh’s ordinance since the 1980s, beginning with the owners of a building I lived in as a law student. Those owners sued to get a variance to allow four students to rent two bedroom, two bath units in a high rise building nestled between Duquesne University’s old gym, Rockwell Hall, Fisher Hall and the Liberty Bridge. Clearly, the owners thought, this was not the type of building or location which the city intended to restrict to only three students per unit. The owners were wrong, and after years of expensive litigation, Pennsylvania appellate courts upheld the city’s right to limit student housing, and left it to the legislature to change the law. The owners sold the building to Duquesne University shortly thereafter, and the university houses as many students in the building as it sees fit, since college dorms are not subject to the city ordinance.

Other witnesses provided testimony about the effects of ordinances in other parts of the state on both landlords and students, including non-traditional students like returning veterans and how even married students with jobs could be affected by ordinances like that in Greensburg.

But Representative Kate Harper postponed the hearing several times, for various reasons, and by the time we had the opportunity to testify, well organized municipal groups opposing the passage of HB 809 including officials and landlords who lived in different college towns, were mobilized to speak and write to legislators against the bill. Witnesses told anecdotal stories of students urinating in public, having loud parties on weeknights lasting into early morning hours, of student cars making crowded streets unsafe, and students failing to keep houses yards and porches in a manner consistent with neighborhood standards. Municipal officials had Powerpoint presentations with charts showing that neighborhoods with student housing had not several times or even ten times the police calls as non-student neighborhoods of similar square mileage, but a hundred times the police calls, putting a terrible strain on municipal services and stress on their neighbors.

Witnesses supporting the passage of HB 809 were drowned out by the emotional pleas, disturbing anecdotes and incredible statistics presented by opponents. Some commented that if an ethnic, racial or religious minority had been substituted for the word student in the testimony of opponents, the prejudicial, over reaching bias of the testimony would be apparent to anyone. None of the opponents acknowledged that non-discriminatory ordinances already exist against things like loud parties disturbing the peace, public intoxication and public urination. In fact, they claimed the only way to deal with those activities is to keep most or all students out of their neighborhoods, since offending activities begin and end too quickly for police to prosecute if the students are there.

If you would like to hear some of the testimony, one supporting witness, and two opposing witnesses, and see the PowerPoint figures for yourself, search for Representative Kate Harper’s website, and click on the video excerpts from the hearing.

In the aftermath of the hearing, the PROA board met with our lobbyists and discussed where we go from here. We still believe that many local ordinances unfairly discriminate against students and other unmarried individuals in their housing choices, and prevent owners of multi-bedroom units from renting those units to many good prospective tenants just because of their student or marital status. However, the organization and passion of opponents mean that a more patient and deliberative course is required to get the justice and equity we seek for student and unmarried tenants and landlords who would rent to them.

PROA affiliates have filed Public Records Information Act requests which seek the raw data on which the statistics in the municipal government PowerPoint are based. We will need to analyze the data for multiple other variables between the districts being compared, such as density of population, socioeconomic factors between the districts, and other variables independent of student residence which would contribute to the deviation in police calls which the municipalities attribute entirely to student housing. Next, we will need to test the veracity of police call accounting to see if the data led to the result, or the desired result led to the data.

We can’t do much to combat anecdotal stories, but we can check local, non-discriminatory ordinances which exist in the communities where the stories arose, and ask why those ordinances were not used to combat the bad behaviors complained of. Finally, we must find our own anecdotal stories of good student and unmarried tenants who were discriminated against and landlords who have been unfairly prevented from renting their properties to the number of persons the properties can reasonable accommodate, such as only having three tenants allowed in a four bedroom house.

When we are ready for the information and emotion offered by opponents, we can come back to HB 809 and have a full discussion on its merits, and hopefully get it passed for the benefit of Pennsylvania.

In Act 167 PROA Sees Another Victory for Landlords Dealing with Abandoned Tenant Property

By Bradley S. Dornish, Esq.

Since the passage of Act 129 in the summer of 2012, landlords in Pennsylvania have had far more direction from PA law on how to handle personal property left behind by tenants who have vacated their rental units than was ever previously available. Our state organization, the Pennsylvania Residential Owners’ Association, (PROA) worked for many years to get that key piece of legislation drafted, through the legislative process, and to see Act 129 become law. Click here to read more »

National REIA Mid-Year Conference Brings Exciting News

By Bradley S. Dornish, Esq.

ACRE is the Western PA chapter of National REIA, the National Real Estate Investors’ Association. The association has given us connections to and feedback on the quality of national speakers, and has kept us up to date on issues facing real estate investors all across the country. Click here to read more »

Real Estate Agent or Real Estate Investor?

By Bradley S, Dornish, Esquire

The old adage “If it walks like a duck and it quacks like a duck, it’s a duck” might as well be the title of this article, since most of what I am about to tell you is aptly covered by that adage. Real estate investors are often told by experts and gurus that they can engage in activities, or build whole businesses around conduct which, at least in Pennsylvania, is within the description of the practice of real estate, and requires a real estate agent’s license and affiliation of the agent with a real estate broker. Click here to read more »