Inside Your Town

Allentown City Council plans public meeting on blighted properties, slum landlords

ALLENTOWN, Pa. - The ability of Allentown's administration to deal with blighted homes and slum landlords –as well as the limitations it faces -- will be discussed at a special public meeting that will be scheduled by City Council.

"We'll paint a picture for you," city managing director Francis Dougherty promised City Council Wednesday night.

"I'll be happy to bring the team together to share the statistics, the pictorial history and the evidence. And any suggestions from the public or from the dais would be appreciated," he added.

No date was set for the meeting, which was requested by city council member Jeanette Eichenwald.

Council president Julio Guridy agreed to the meeting, saying the full council probably will meet as a committee-of-the-whole.

The idea for a meeting was spurred by Ken Heffentrager of the Allentown Tenant Association, who suggested to council that the city should be shaming people into doing something about their blighted properties.

Heffentrager routinely stands before City Council to inform its members about specific blighted properties in Allentown -- including naming the people who own them -- and to criticize the administration for not taking more action against those he calls slumlords.

On Wednesday night, Heffentrager suggested the city call a meeting to discuss raising fines against slum landlords who refuse to maintain their properties.

"They're making the rest of the city look like a dump," said Heffentrager. "We know that other people are lazy. When they see a dump, they add to the dump."

Heffentrager said one alley in the city literally was blocked with trash, including 15 mattresses.

He indicated the owner of a vacant property along that alley said he has spent a total of $10,000 to haul away trash that others put on it, three times in just two months.

Heffentrager also claimed city code enforcement personnel have allowed blighted buildings to be occupied even though they are unfit for human habitation.

When Heffentrager sat down, Eichenwald asked Dougherty: "Who in the city administration is responsible for these issues of code enforcement? Who is directly responsible?"

Dougherty said Heffentrager raised multiple issues and explained different city personnel are responsible for different issues.

"This is an untenable situation," declared Eichenwald, who was the most receptive member of City Council to Heffentrager's complaints. "Meeting after meeting after meeting … for people to have to live next door to these homes… just is deleterious to everyone that lives in the city."

She suggested a public discussion should be held to learn about the problems that are causing delays in the city taking action on some of the properties. "It's the same properties and new ones are being added."

Dougherty readily agreed to arrange such a meeting, saying: "I'm not opposed to bringing the team together and providing a clearer picture to you."

But he also passionately defended the work already being done by city enforcement personnel, from police to building inspectors.

He stressed all of them are working as hard as they can.

"They're doing their jobs and they're doing them well. Are we making progress? Yes. Are we making big strides right now? No, but at least we're going in the right direction."

"It would be one thing if we were ignoring these issues," said Dougherty. "But you see the budget; you see the manpower that we put to these things. We don't ignore these things.

"But I don't have any magic solution to this. There's no panacea that can solve all these problems. They're systemic; they've been going on for years.

"The important thing is we have stopped the bleeding. We have passed legislation to help us do more. We're fining people, we're following up on codes, we're improving our technology to better follow up on the violations."

Dougherty said the solution is not as simple as hiring more enforcement personnel.

"It's human behavior, which I cannot change overnight. And it's not just landlords. I had tenants who are out of control dumping."

When Dougherty began talking about one tenant being evicted who deliberately collected 300 tires and apparently put them into the place where she lived, Heffentrager began arguing with him from his seat.

"Please, I have the floor," said Dougherty.

He said the city is working with that landlord to dispose of the unidentified hazard posed by those tires.

Dougherty acknowledged the city does have bad landlords, "but it's not just the landlords."

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