First Suburbs – Challenges of Rental Housing

As property values diminish and services are cut, First Suburbs usually begin to see a decline in rates of homeownership, creating a steady pool of vacant and less expensive properties for investors. In any discussion of the challenges that some rental markets may pose, though, it’s important to distinguish between tenants and buildings.

Depending on the slant of landlord-tenant law in a particular state, and the extent to which tenants in a community are aware of their rights, they may not have a strong voice to advocate for themselves and the condition of their buildings. In any public discussion about housing policy, all parties would be well-served to be careful not to lump all tenants into any broad category. Certainly, public policy itself should never seek to exclude based on negative stereotypes or broad assertions.

Tenants are people. I’m not trying to be a wise guy. This sometimes gets lost as frustrations mount, buildings deteriorate and discussions get heated. But tenants do become the neighbors, classmates, friends and employees in a community; they become citizens of the community. I’m not sure if such a program exists anywhere for tenants, but if community organizing is picking up speed – I’m thinking of Pottstown here – maybe there’s a way to incorporate a kind of Welcome Wagon program into the efforts. The best way to get new residents to understand and come to value community norms might be as simple as knocking on a new tenant’s door, saying “hello,” offering a folder with information, including their rights, and, yes, maybe a homemade pie. (I am talking about Pottstown, after all )

Although I have a lot of faith in the power of pie, of course it’s not going to solve a fiscal crisis. In no way do I mean to minimize the fiscal effect of increasing numbers of lower-income and special needs students straining a school district and the taxpayers. But the blanket blaming of tenants is not the answer. There are larger issues that have to be dealt with to turn a town toward greater homeownership, increased business investment and a stable tax base, so that the school district has a greater capacity to provide needed services. Enforcing the existing laws on the books would make a huge impact, not only on the day-to-day experience for current residents, but the perception of outsiders, funding sources and new businesses, about how well the town itself functions.

My first full-time job out of college was with the Section 8 program in Trenton. I did inspections all over the city, followed up on repairs, negotiated with landlords and re-certified tenant income. Several days each week were spent in the field, doing scheduled inspections. Other days were spent in the office, meeting with clients and keeping the paperwork moving. A quick look at Pottstown’s website shows that all the pieces are in place to carry out a rental registration and inspection program.

There’s the zoning ordinance, the required form for the initial registration of a property, the schedule of residential rental registration fees, the checklist for the inspection of residential rental units, and the inspection application with a change in occupancy. I am not sure why I have read/heard that the program is “voluntary.” The ordinance states that owners or rental agents “are required” to submit registrations and update any changes in occupancy.

In a recent post, a local blog – The Pulse! by a citizens’ action group, Code Blue – reported that a request for a list of all the Borough’s rental properties could not be accommodated because no such list exists.

Whether that was done in error or not, an excellent starting point for a rental registration list would be a list of the non-owner-occupied properties from the Montgomery County Board of Assessment Appeals. The entire property file, with all the data collected for assessment purposes, is available online. This wonderful tool allows anyone to search, for example, by Land Use Code and find out that Pottstown has 352 duplexes, 94 triplexes, 52 quadplexes and 43 conversions to 5 or more apartments.

It is not possible to use their advanced search function online to find out all the properties where “property owner address” does not equal “property address.” But the county will send the entire file, or just that search/sort, for $53 to anyone who requests it through the open public records process, as I recently did.

All of this is to say that there is a pretty good, existing list of non-owner-occupied units based on County data. So, what are the obstacles to running a rental registration and inspection program? Do fees need to be set to cover the cost of administration? Is current staff trained and ready to go? Administrative systems would have to be put in place to handle the incoming data and to assist in the monitoring and follow-up. Funds would have to be budgeted initially to notify ALL property owners by mail, website, newspapers and blogs that the ordinances are now going to be enforced as of a certain date, maybe 60 days out. And that fines will be levied for non-compliance. And that the police will be tracking the properties where they are called out three or more times for disturbances, which has its own consequences.

Enforcing these provisions is no different from enforcing tax collections. In fact, this kind of enforcement is possibly more critical to sending the message that a town is on top of its game, which is really the first step toward attracting new residents and economic activity.

2 thoughts on “First Suburbs – Challenges of Rental Housing

  1. Sue, I agree with you completely. I have also been running into the same issues getting records of Code violations from the Boro-they just seem very disorganized, although I hear they are working hard to correct their deficiencies. I think that your “Welcome Wagon” idea is terrific. Perhaps the fine folks over at Citizens for Pottstown’s Revitalization could develop such an effort.

    1. Thanks for the feedback, Jeff. It’s hard to do it justice in a blog post since the whole issue has all these interrelated and moving parts, but gotta keep the conversation going. Good of you to volunteer CPR for the Welcome Wagon job! 🙂

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