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Judge Rules Against City Ordinance On Rental Fees For Landlords

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Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
An ordinance passed by City Council in 2015 would have required landlords to register their properties with the city and pay a fee for inspections and registration processing, but it was never implemented.

An Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas judge struck down a City of Pittsburgh ordinance on Tuesday that aimed to improve rental property standards in the city and eliminate absentee landlords. City Council first passed the ordinance in 2015, but it was never implemented.

In his decision, Judge Joseph James called the fee “excessive” and an “impermissible tax.”

The ordinance would have required landlords to register their properties with the city and pay a per unit fee for inspections and registration processing. The fee would range from $45 to $65, and landlords who own large apartment buildings would pay less per unit. Landlords who passed the inspection would only have to pay half the fee to renew their rental registration permit and could wait five years between inspections rather than three years.

Proponents of the ordinance have long argued that it would improve the standard of rental housing in Pittsburgh and hold absentee landlords responsible for their properties.

The Landlord Service Bureau sued the city in 2016 to stop the program. The Realtors Association of Metropolitan Pittsburgh and Apartment Association of Metropolitan Pittsburgh later joined as plaintiffs in the case. They argued that the fee was “grossly disproportionate [to] the cost of the rental registration program,” and constituted an illegal tax.

An expert witness for the City said that the fee was calculated based on direct and indirect costs for the rental registration program.

James wrote that the plaintiffs “demonstrated that the $65 fee does not correlate to the actual direct or indirect costs that the City claims in connection with the Ordinance’s implementation and application,” he wrote. “The evidence demonstrated that the Ordinance’s charges will produce a high proportion of income relative to the costs of collection and supervision.”

Pittsburgh is prohibited from enforcing the ordinance until it sets a fee that is “fair, reasonable, and not grossly disproportionate to the cost of maintaining the program.”

A spokesperson for the mayor’s office said the city is “deeply disappointed in the ruling” and is “carefully reviewing the decision and considering all options to advance this program which is essential for our neighborhoods.”

Julia Zenkevich is a general assignment reporter for 90.5 WESA. She first joined the station as a production assistant on The Confluence, and more recently served as a fill-in producer for The Confluence and Morning Edition. She’s a life-long Pittsburgher, and attended the University of Pittsburgh. She can be reached at jzenkevich@wesa.fm.
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