“In my office, calls about building inspection, rental issues are near the top of the list,” says Pittsburgh City Councilor Dan Gilman, who represents District 8. “The challenges we face are often an inability to reach landlords because there’s no local representative. The rental registration is a fair business license, the same way we license other businesses. It would make it easier for us to track and get in contact with landlords as needed.”
But the rental registry is one of several pieces of legislation that have been challenged in court recently. Others include laws requiring employers within the city to provide mandatory paid sick leave; a law requiring additional training for security officers; and a measure that adds housing-voucher recipients as a class protected from discrimination.
Paid sick leave and the training legislation were struck down last year. Allegheny County Common Pleas Court Judge Joseph James called them “invalid and unenforceable.” And the housing-voucher bill, like the rental-registration law, is still pending.
Just as with the pieces of legislation that were struck down, the Landlord Services Bureau, which filed the suit challenging the rental-registry ordinance, claims it is an overreach of the city’s power. But Gilman says it’s exactly the kind of bill council should be enacting.
“It’s incredibly frustrating,” Gilman says “These are pieces of legislation that are not overly burdensome, in my opinion. They’re similar to legislation passed not only across Pennsylvania but across the country. They’re largely pieces of legislation that are a part of the national dialogue. Every day that goes by that a law’s not enforced because of a lawsuit, the residents are the ones that are hurt, and that’s unfortunate.”
If the measure is defeated, it could call into question whether city council’s recent actions overstep its authority.
“Typically when a municipality goes to enact legislation, it does so under the authority it has from the Pennsylvania legislature,” says John Rushford, a solicitor for several local municipalities.
The registry program has had a particularly long journey in council since it was first proposed in November 2014. After a public hearing the following month, the legislation sat in committee for an entire year before it was amended and passed in December 2015 by a vote of 7-2. The law is aimed at ensuring the city’s residential rental units meet all codes for buildings, existing structures, fire, health, safety, and zoning. It was also designed to provide a better system for compelling absentee and local landlords to perform regular maintenance on units and correct any violations.
“The legislation was endorsed and supported by almost every community group in my district and numerous ones citywide,” says Gilman. “And while many didn’t talk publicly, it was backed by huge numbers of landlords in my district who called me, as they were perfectly happy to be paying a small monthly fee in order to have the industry better regulated and have the ability for building inspection to hold others accountable.”
Despite this support, Gilman says he knew the law would be challenged in court. But, he says, “We passed a bill that was perfectly legal. I wouldn’t vote for a bill I didn’t believe would be legal in Pennsylvania.”
Landlord Services Bureau head Craig Costilac says the rental registration is beyond the scope of city council’s power. He also says there are already laws in place to protect tenants from absentee landlords.
“The city is doing nothing but trying to get revenue to address a budget deficit,” says Costilac. “The City of Pittsburgh is violating citizens’ rights.”
Rushford, the current solicitor for Wilkins Township who also does work with Dormont Borough and Brentwood, says the crux of most arguments over municipal legislation is whether they are within the city’s power to legislate.
“That’s sort of the $64,000 question,” says Rushford. “Generally what the courts say is municipalities have the right to legislate health, safety and welfare within reason. … But it has to be tied to a legitimate governmental interest. It can’t just be because you arbitrarily want to regulate something.”
With regard to rental registration, Rushford says he’s seen challenges where fees outweighed administrative costs, and those ordinances were struck down.
“If you charge a fee for rental registration, it has to be reasonable,” says Rushford. “The fee cannot be a tax. The fee has to be reasonably related to whatever the activity is that’s being done.”
That’s why City Councilor Corey O’Connor voted against it.
“I’m supportive of the idea. I think we should have everyone registered,” says O’Connor. “I didn’t think the numbers came out right. I thought [the proposed] $63 dollars was too high for the job we had to do to get everyone registered. But I do think the policy would be beneficial.”
It will eventually be up to the courts to decide whether it’s a good law or just another city ordinance that goes unenforced. One of the most well-known of these is the city’s lost-and-stolen-gun legislation that was passed in 2008 and never enforced.
“I’m sure before these things came to the vote they were properly vetted,” says Rushford. “But if one of my municipalities tried to [pass gun legislation], I would probably advise against it. You know the NRA and other organizations would oppose that legislation.”
But at the same time, Rushford says unenforceable legislation can still serve a purpose.
“When you pass a piece of legislation like that, you’re sending a message to Harrisburg,” Rushford says. “There are arguably easier ways to do this like passing legislation, for example asking for paid sick leave. But part of it, like gun-control legislation, is sending a strong statement that municipalities want to regulate guns. It may not necessarily be within what we’ve been allowed by the legislature to regulate, but it may be something we want to send a message about.”
For Gilman’s part, he says council won’t let the threat of court challenges dissuade members from moving forward with other controversial legislation.
“You can’t govern if you’re going to back down every time an interest group threatens to file a lawsuit,” says Gilman. “I don’t think there’s been a controversial bill across America where there aren’t threats of lawsuits on it. That’s why we have city attorneys. That’s why we have a court system, to provide that check and balance.
“I’m certainly not going to be pushed away from passing legislation that I believe is in the best interest of city of Pittsburgh residents by the threat of a lawsuit.”