Landlords sue city to stop registrations

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The Apartment Association of Metropolitan Pittsburgh sued the city of Pittsburgh today to try to overturn the rental registration ordinance that tells landlords to pay a $12-per-unit fee by April 1.

The association, which includes 185 landlords with properties in the city, according to the complaint, believes the law is unconstitutional, unenforceable and an illegal tax.

"The Apartment Association has always and still stands ready to work with the administration to craft an ordinance that doesn't violate the rights of landlords and tenants," said attorney Lawrence Fisher, shortly after filing the complaint in civil court and serving it on the city Law Department. The law passed in late 2007, and being enforced now for the first time, doesn't fit the bill, he said.

City Chief of Staff Yarone Zober said that Mayor Luke Ravenstahl views rental registration as an important "puzzle piece" in the effort to improve neighborhood quality of life, but didn't rule out amending the ordinance.

"The purpose of the ordinance as passed by council and signed by the mayor is to make sure that landlords live up to their responsibilities," Mr. Zober said. "There are just too many landlords at this point who don't take responsibility for their properties" and tenants.

The complaint says that by requiring "tens of thousands" of buildings to get inspections and certificates of occupancy before they can receive rental licenses, without providing an appeal process, the ordinance turns city building inspectors into "both judge and jury" and creates a "logistically impossible" paperwork crunch.

The $12-per-unit fee and the $65 occupancy permit process will bring "well over an additional $1 million" to the city this year, according to the complaint, which characterizes that as an illegal tax. The fact that landlords can't register unless their property and business taxes are paid also suggests that the ordinance is "a revenue collection tool," it says.

A requirement that landlords give the city the phone numbers of their tenants runs afoul of a Supreme Court decision barring "unauthorized seizure or disclosure" of phone numbers, the complaint says.

The complaint also says that a requirement that all landlords operating in the city of Pittsburgh have an in-state representative is unfair to those located out of state. State law, it continues, bars home rule municipalities from placing "responsibilities or requirements" on businesses, and the requirement of an in-state representative is an illegal duty.

Mr. Fisher said the Apartment Association will argue for an injunction suspending rental registration at a March 13 hearing before Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge R. Stanton Wettick.

James Eichenlaub, acting executive director of the Apartment Association, said his organization tried to get city government to make changes to the ordinance, and had limited success, for instance removing a requirement that landlords supply tenants' social security numbers. "We still had concerns, and we would hope they would review those concerns and submit, for lack of a better word, a fix-it bill," he said.

He said his association's members probably own around half of the privately owned rental units in the city.

More details in tomorrow's Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.


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