ALLENTOWN, Pa. - Allentown City Council members are getting louder about wanting landlord reform after an apartment building in Allentown was deemed uninhabitable by inspectors.
On Monday, concerns about a building on North 8th Street brought several of them out to the property, and things got a little heated between council and the landlord, Richard Smith.
Smith owns the 7-unit property located at 104 N. 8th Street in Allentown. On Friday, the city posted notice on the building that it needed to be vacated in three days because it was "Unfit for Human Habitation."
On Monday, the city said the building was re-inspected and that the building had complied enough with violations to be safely occupied. Re-inspections for other violations are scheduled.
The city did not specify what the violations were.
"The building shouldn't have been red-tagged," Smith said. "The problem was fixed within two hours of it happening."
Smith said a tenant let a sink run for nearly half an hour, causing it to overflow, which ultimately led to the water being shut off.
City councilwoman Candida Affa, who led a news conference outside the property Monday, said tenants have also complained of fecal waste inside the hallway and issues with the front door. According to Affa, residents said anyone from the street can just enter the building.
However, Smith said there is a lock on the inside of the door, and it's tenants' responsibility to make sure they shut and lock it. He told 69 News that tenants also need to be responsible for cleaning up after themselves.
Smith said tenants had not made those complaints to him. He added several tenants are late on rent, and one in particular owes him thousands. He said the COVID-19 moratorium on evictions has made parting ways with bad tenants nearly impossible.
During an exchange outside the apartment, Affa told Smith "I wouldn't live there if you paid me to live in your place. It's a slum."
Smith told 69 News that the property isn't the "Taj Mahal" but is livable and never should have been deemed uninhabitable.
Smith acknowledged there had been past concerns with feces in the hallway, but he hadn't had any complaints in the last few months until last week. He said that in the last few days a tenant had cleaned it up. A woman who identified herself as a tenant told WFMZ she swept up needles and cleaned up human waste inside the building.
Smith also said the Health Bureau visited the property on Thursday and gave him 30 days to address the concerns but did not call for an immediate closure.
Though there was heated back and forth between Smith and council on Monday, Affa said her decision to call a press conference was not focused on Smith or his building.
"It's more about the bill than the building," Affa said.
She said she wants to tackle landlord issues in the city.
"This is a cancer in our city," Affa said.
Flanked by several councilmembers at the news conference, Affa said the incident has re-ignited council's determination to establish a Landlord Responsibility Bill.
"If they own a building and city comes and red-tags it, they have to be responsible to relocate these people," Affa said. "Maybe removing their license."
Affa also is interested in looking at fining landlords in such situations. The specifics of the bill haven't been fully explored, and a timeline wasn't immediately available.
But Smith said the idea of making landlords responsible for relocation costs is problematic, noting that there's procedure for tenants to take landlords to court over issues, as there is with landlords taking tenants to court for issues including unpaid rent and breaking lease agreements.
"To do it at a landlord's expense doesn't make sense," Smith said. "I think if it does get to a relocation program, tenants will destroy properties in order to make it uninhabitable."
In addition, Smith said he is concerned about a landlord potentially being held financially accountable for damage a tenant causes. He also has issue with the possibility of a landlord being in the position of paying for alternative housing for tenants who aren't paying rent.
Smith added that despite council voicing concerns, some of his tenants at the property have asked to stay and questioned why people would remain in the property if they had concerns with the conditions. He also highlighted his experience in the field. He said he has been renting apartments for nearly 20 years and has dozens of properties.
Affa said landlord reform is city council's collective main priority.