Verona Council Moves to Enforce Housing Codes
During the May Workshop Meeting, officials sought stricter enforcement of rental unit fees and action on blighted properties.
Verona officials on Tuesday took several steps to increase housing code enforcement on negligent property owners.
During a workshop meeting, council approved a measure allowing code enforcement officers to seek civil suits against landlords who haven’t paid fees for rental units. Officials also discussed pursuing legal action on owners of blighted, vacant properties.
Code Enforcement Officer Mark Stanton said Verona still has issues with landlords who haven’t paid the annual $35-per-unit fee the borough has had in place since 2004. According to Stanton, more than 30 units aren’t paid for, and issuing citations hasn’t proven to be effective.
“There’s always a few people who don’t comply,” Stanton said.
But some are more egregious than others, he said. Owners with multiple rental properties have been hard to get money from—especially if they live out of town or even out of state. Sometimes, they aren’t even renting the units.
With Tuesday’s unanimously-approved measure, Stanton is authorized to file civil suits in district court on the owners of those properties, seeking legal fees in addition to the rental fees they owe.
Part of the problem, Stanton said, was that working with citations brought about a situation where officials had to spend time in court and pay legal fees that were more than the per-unit rental fee. Now, the borough expects to recover some of the money they spend enforcing the code.
What to do with blighted houses—long a thorn in the community’s side—is a bit more complicated.
“This has been brewing for a long time,” Stanton said.
Stanton suggested that council pursue legal action against negligent owners through a state law called the Abandoned and Blighted Property Conservatorship Act. The law, which went into effect in February 2009, seeks to make it easier for municipalities to address blight by allowing a common pleas court to appoint third parties to rehabilitate deteriorating buildings, according to the Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania.
“We’re trying to do something with them,” Stanton said. “It’s just not fair that somebody who apparently has the means to take care of a property isn’t doing it.”
A lien holder, municipality, school district, and even residents or business owners within 500 feet of the building can petition the court to have themselves or someone else become its conservator. The conservator would assume all tax debt on the building and rehabilitate it.
In order for a building to be placed in conservatorship, it can’t have been occupied for at least a year, sold in the past six months, or marketed within 60 days of the filing. Additionally, the property can’t be subject to an existing foreclosure. The building also has to meet a list of nine conditions, such as being unfit for human habitation and posing a fire hazard.
Once a petition is filed, the owner and any lien holders are notified. But they don’t necessarily have a say in the process; they can counter-petition to retain possession if they agree to bring the building up to code. Even so, they may be required to post a bond.
After a conservator is appointed, an owner or lien holder has six months to regain possession by reimbursing the conservator for rehabilitation costs. After that time, the conservator can sell the property, free of debt.
Officials said they realize the process is involved—it would require roughly $400 just to do a title search and pay filing fees, Solicitor Craig Alexander noted. But they said it’s better than the alternative: letting buildings deteriorate until they have to be demolished, weakening the housing market and leaving the borough with unattractive lots.
Rhoda Gemellas-Worf, who heads the finance committee, said the process will be slow-going, but it’s worth the effort.
Gemellas-Worf suggested that council talk to the school district, which would have a lot to gain by getting properties back on the books, before moving forward with any plans.
Council members and Stanton seemed eager to move ahead with the idea. Unless someone pushes for change, Stanton said, the situation won’t improve. Absentee property owners will let their properties decay, and lien holders won’t push the issue.
“(Banks) don’t have any incentive to either drop the lien or act on it,” he said.