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Pennsylvania Supreme Court hears arguments over Pittsburgh's rental registry

A for rent sign outside four blue apartment doors.
Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

Pittsburgh’s years-long effort to create a registry of rental property owners had its day before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court Tuesday. But even as the city sought to overturn a lower court’s 2023 ruling that struck down the registry, its attorney fielded questions about whether the dispute was still relevant.

The city passed an ordinance in 2021 to establish a registry of all rental property owners. The registry would require out-of-town owners to designate a local person to field complaints — a measure aimed at protecting tenants and their neighbors from absentee landlords.

But in a lawsuit, the Landlord Service Bureau and the Apartment Association of Metropolitan Pittsburgh argued the registry places undue burdens on landlords. They also contended that Pennsylvania’s home rule charter rules do not give the city the authority to enforce the registry.

Judges have so far sided with the landlords. Last year, Commonwealth 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.”

But Pittsburgh has contended that it does have the authority to govern and regulate buildings. And it says officials can’t track down bad landlords without the registry.

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Efforts to create a registry date back to 2009: Earlier versions of the ordinance also met with opposition from the landlords' groups, who convinced judges that the programs' fee structure was too costly.

The 2021 bill was the city’s third attempt at creating a registry, and after the Commonwealth Court struck it down, the city passed a fourth version last September.

The latest version set forth less stringent requirements. After it passed, city solicitor Krysia Kubiak told WESA that the city was still holding out “hope that our original [2021] bill gets approved [so] that we can enforce that version.”

But during Tuesday's hour-long hearing, at least one justice wondered whether the new bill didn't render the old one defunct.

“You’re asking us to review the constitutionality of an ordinance that not only isn’t being enforced but isn’t on the books,” Justice Kevin Brobson said.

Brobson noted that the court typically hesitates to weigh in on laws that aren’t actively being enforced.

Lawyers for the Landlord Service Bureau and Apartment Association of Metropolitan Pittsburgh agreed, arguing the courts should throw out the case as moot, a move that would effectively consign the 2021 ordinance to the scrap heap.

But the city reiterated its intent to enforce the 2021 ordinance if the court upheld its constitutionality. Assistant city solicitor Lawrence Baumiller told the justices that the 2021 registry “would be re-enacted by City Council … [T]hat is their intent.”

He added that members still want the requirements spelled out in the 2021 version “because of how important they are to public safety." But he conceded that he could not guarantee that council would re-enact the legislation by repealing the 2023 version.

Justices also pondered whether ruling on Pittsburgh’s registry could affect future registries in other counties, and whether such ordinances would, like Pittsburgh's 2021 measure, bar landlords from owning property outside of their home county without a local agent.

As there is no deadline for the court to rule, it’s unclear when justices may issue an opinion in the matter.

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.