Allentown has more rental units than privately-owned homes.

The city has more than 25,000 known rental units, according to David Paulus, director of building standards and safety in Allentown.

That is 58 percent of the estimated 43,000 total housing units in Allentown, said Mike Moore, the city’s communications coordinator.

Paulus recently reported to City Council that the number of rental units increased by nearly 1,000 in the last year.

That is a higher-than-average annual increase, said Moore.

He said the increase in rentals is “a result of current economic conditions.”

"While we would rather see more owner-occupied properties, a certain portion of the population either cannot afford to own their home or would rather rent,” said the city spokesman.

Moore said the trend could change: “I would expect that, as economic conditions improve, the percentage of owner-occupied dwellings would also rise.”

Paulus told council that few apartments recently have been built in Allentown. He said many of the new units were single-family homes purchased by Realtors or landlords who turned them into rentals. “As far as turning a single-family home into a single-family rental, we have no control over that whatsoever,” said Paulus.

But Paulus explained the city does not allow homes to be converted into multiple apartment units. Anyone wanting to do that has to seek approval from the Allentown Zoning Hearing Board, “and they’re very tough on that.” He indicated property owners must go through the zoning board even to convert a single-family home into even two apartments.

Moore could not pin it down to a year, but said the number of rental units in Allentown surpassed privately-owned homes sometime between 2000 and 2010. Twelve years ago, the city had 19,668 rental units, he said.

City Council president Julio Guridy is concerned about the impact of the increasing number of rental properties on the city’s tax base. After hearing the statistics Paulus presented to council Dec. 4, Guridy said: “When you own your own home, you take better care of it, which increases the total value of the housing stock.”

Guridy said if a rented property is allowed to deteriorate, it loses value, so less tax can be collected on it.

He said home ownership also gives the city more stability.

“I hate to lump everybody into one category,” said Ray O’Connell, City Council’s vice president. “Many renters take very good care of their properties.”

Allentown has a population of more than 119,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Twenty-four percent of those residents live at or below the poverty level, according to Mayor Ed Pawlowski. 

Slum Lords

On Dec. 5, City Council was told it is time for Allentown to do more to go after the blighted properties and slum landlords, including those who unfairly evict tenants and make them homeless. That recommendation came from Ken Heffentrager, vice president of the Tenants Association of Allentown.

“How many individuals this month alone are going to lose their homes because of slum lords?” asked Heffentrager. “It’s only Dec. 5 and five families are out this month. And we’ve got 20 more days before Christmas.”

Heffentrager distributed lists naming people his organization considers slum landlords in the city, as well as the addresses of properties they own.

On Dec. 4, Paulus told City Council: “We have been very successful at finding illegal units. We found over 300 illegal units this year.”

Paulus said more than 400 illegal apartment units were found in 2011. He hopes that number is going down because landlords are getting the word that they can’t put people in basements, attics, garages and other unsafe places.

Basements, attics and garages were not constructed for human habitation, explained Moore.

When the city finds an illegal apartment unit, the property owner is given time to remove that unit or face a monetary penalty, said Moore. The owner also may be able to bring the unit into compliance and pay for the appropriate license and a possible penalty. For first offenders, those penalties can be up to $1,000 and/or 90 days in prison.