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Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court strikes down Pittsburgh's rental registry

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

A yearslong effort to create a rental registry in Pittsburgh took another blow in court Friday. Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court reversed the latest city ordinance designed to create a registry of rental properties and landlords.

In an opinion written by Senior Judge Mary Hannah Leavitt, the court found that state law does not “expressly” empower the city to launch “wide-ranging regulation of the residential landlord business.” As a result, the court found that “the city was without authority to enact the rental ordinance in its present configuration.”

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Several city leaders, including Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey, expressed frustration with the ruling.

“We are deeply disappointed in today’s decision by the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania on Pittsburgh’s rental-registration program,” Gainey said in a statement. “This commonsense legislation is good for the health and safety of our residents, and the city plans to appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.”

The city first passed the rental-registry ordinance in 2021, which would require landlords to register their properties in a city database and appoint a local representative to respond to calls from tenants. Units would would be subject to routine inspections, and structures built before 1978 would be inspected for the presence of lead.

The court found that these numerous requirements require "express authorization" under state law. And the opinion further notes that a rental registry in Columbia County, Pa. cited by Pittsburgh does not require routine inspections, but instead only when a property is vacant.

Advocates of the registry argue it will protect renters — who make up the majority of Pittsburgh residents — from absentee landlords who have allowed properties to fall into disrepair.

“Pittsburgh is a majority-renter city, and everyone who lives here deserves protection and the knowledge that their rented home meets basic standards of living,” Gainey said.

Councilor Erika Strassburger, who championed the lead inspections required within the registry program, echoed the mayor’s disappointment.

“It’s a blow to renters in the city,” she said Friday. “It’s the city’s responsibility to ensure people have a safe and habitable place to live.”

Strassburger said she was “hopeful” the city could win an appeal and stressed the importance of detecting lead in homes before children are exposed.

The city has been trying for 15 years to establish inspection requirements and a registry of rental properties. A legal battle between landlord groups and the city has prevented two previous iterations of the program from moving forward. Previous lawsuits have contended that the program’s fee structure was too high.

The most recent registry was slated to take effect last May, but two landlord groups filed a lawsuit to block it last March.

The groups — the Landlord Service Bureau and the Apartment Association of Metropolitan Pittsburgh — argued the requirements place an “undue burden” on landlords and rental companies based out of town. The groups also argued in court last month that publicizing contact information for landlords is a violation of privacy that could be misused by disgruntled tenants.

John Corcoran, who represents the Landlord Service Bureau, said he was “thrilled” with the court decision.

“The opinion by the Commonwealth Court was very strong,” Corcoran said Friday. “This is a huge decision [in favor of] landlords.”

Corcoran said his client had heard from several local landlords Friday who were pleased with the outcome. He dismissed concerns about the outcome of an appeal.

“They can appeal it, and we’re going to win it,” he said.

Updated: March 17, 2023 at 5:24 PM EDT
This story has been updated.
Kiley Koscinski covers city government, policy and how Pittsburghers engage with city services. She also works as a fill-in host for All Things Considered. Kiley has previously served as a producer on The Confluence and Morning Edition.