Proposed $65 fee for Pittsburgh landlords blasted as tax |
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Bob Bauder

Landlords in Pittsburgh would pay $65 a year to register each of their leased properties under a proposal that Mayor Bill Peduto’s administration says would reduce blight but that critics contend is a revenue grab.

“Having a registration of rental property owners can supply us with information so we can properly enforce (property) codes,” said Peduto Chief of Staff Kevin Acklin.

Opponents panned it as a tax.

“That’s obscene,” said Jerry Speer, owner of Equity Real Estate in Squirrel Hill, which manages 600 rentals in the Pittsburgh area. “They’re just trying to find a way to collect more money.”

Peduto’s administration rewrote an existing rental registry ordinance that City Council approved in 2009. Owners later challenged it in court as an illegal tax. Council never implemented the ordinance.

Under the legislation, which is subject to council approval, owners must provide a contact for themselves or legal representative so that the city can reach them.

The fees would bring in about $1.6 million in 2015, according to Peduto’s proposed budget. The legislation exempts public housing, dormitories, rehabilitation facilities and hospitals. The penalty for failing to register is a maximum $500 fine.

Bureau of Building Inspection Chief Maura Kennedy estimates there are about 45,000 residential rentals in the city. She said building inspectors have difficulty finding out-of-town landlords and enforcing code compliance when problems occur.

In one of the most infamous cases, Pittsburgh hired a private detective in Israel to track down one of the owners of abandoned row houses on Formosa Way in Homewood. Prostitution, drug activity and homicides plagued the area for years. The buildings were razed.

Councilman Dan Gilman of Shadyside said a registry, which he supports, is critical for renter safety.

“Pennsylvania state law and other legal loopholes have allowed absentee landlords, out-of-state corporations and other corporate entities to skirt their responsibility,” he said.

Kennedy said the fee was carefully calculated and covers only the city’s cost to administer the registry.

“I looked at how much my staff members make per minute, believe it or not, and calculated how many minutes they would spend on the task,” she said, adding that it also includes equipment costs.

Bradley Dornish, a Downtown attorney who has represented clients statewide in disputes over rental registries, including the 2009 Pittsburgh case, said state tax law prevents cities from using rental fees as income generators.

But, he said, they often do.

“The real purpose of a pure registry ordinance is to generate income,” he said.

Bob Bauder is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-765-2312 or [email protected].

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