The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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July 31, 2013

Council eyes new rules for landlords

JOHNSTOWN — City leaders will look into new requirements for city landlords and working with elected district judges to address blight and crime.

Those were the two directives from Wednesday’s council workshop on public safety – the second of a series planned in response to the Johnstown Crime and Violence Commission report released July 3.

The report gave recommendations on how to address the crime problem, including suggestions involving law enforcement, housing, rehabilitation and education. Council plans to establish a plan based upon what can be accomplished within three-, six- and 12-month benchmarks.

Most of Wednesday’s discussion revolved around absentee property owners and landlords who don’t take care of their property or screen their tenants.

“It’s frustrating,” Councilman Frank Janakovic said. “The city gets blamed. Everybody says they want the city to tear it down, but where is the property owner?”

Janakovic asked if the city can require building owners to carry insurance on their property to cover the cost of demolition after a fire or if the building deteriorates beyond repair.

“I think you can require it,” Councilman Joe Taranto said. “You can definitely impose a demolition bond.”

Reading from printouts of state laws and regulations, Taranto said cities can require owners of rental property to show proof of insurance, provide a demolition bond or invest a designated amount in property improvements.

A demolition bond could require landlords to put $10,000 into escrow to cover demolition, he explained.

Councilwoman Marie Mock said she does not believe the bond will work in Johnstown, where rental properties can be purchased for $10,000 or less.

“People just aren’t going to buy them, and (the buildings) are going to fall apart,” Mock said.

After the meeting, Mock admitted she did not understand the demolition bond was just one option landlords would have under Taranto’s proposal. All would require additional investment in the property.

“If you don’t have the extra $10,000 to do that, you shouldn’t be in the housing business,” Taranto said.

“If you are a landlord, you are in business,” Councilman Pete Vizza added.

There was discussion about rental properties that are frequent fliers on the city police blotter, including Jeffrey Carr’s Fairfield Avenue rental, where Lemmel Dashawn Myers is accused of shooting Leslie Schetrompf on July 24.

Schetrompf died Saturday and his death has been ruled a homicide.

 Carr has several other multi-unit rental properties, council members noted.

“Can we pull his occupancy permit?” Mock asked.

The legal process has begun to take action against the property owner, City Manager Kristen Denne said, adding she is not ready to share details in public.

“I am very uncomfortable that this is becoming selective enforcement,” Denne said as the discussion continued.

“There has been criminal activity,” Janakovic said. “We are not just targeting. We are saying there is a problem.”

Taranto cited state laws allowing municipalities to deny new permits for landlords with three code violations.

But enforcement of code violations often is hampered by lenient penalties imposed by district judges, Denne said, noting that Taranto has been on council only a short time.

“If you walked through the system, you’d understand,” Denne said. “We have tried that.”

Janakovic suggested inviting the local district judges to meet with council and discuss the issues.

Mayor Tom Trigona ended the meeting promising to have city officials look into requiring landlords to carry insurance or other financial responsibility and to work on setting up a meeting with district judges.

The group will meet again Aug. 21 to continue combing through the crime commission’s 25-page report. Several council members noted the complexity of the issues being discussed.

“If it were easy, everybody would be doing it,” Mock said.

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