Meadville City Council has given preliminary approval to a registration and licensing program that would subject the city’s rental units to inspections likely beginning in 2024.
Council members on Wednesday voted 4-1 in favor of the first and second readings of an ordinance establishing the program with Councilman Jim Roha the only opponent. The third and final reading is scheduled for Dec. 21.
In concluding remarks, Councilwoman Autumn Vogel referred to the vote as something council “really needed to do.”
“We took the first step to address unsafe rental housing in Meadville,” Vogel said. “It will address decades of neglect in some cases in the places Meadville citizens are living and calling home, raising their families.”
Roha has consistently questioned the need for an inspection program and reiterated his opposition in the discussion that preceded the votes. Even as he maintained his stance against the ordinance, however, he offered a list of additional concerns and recommended changes. The new criticisms ranged from issues of phrasing to questions for clarification on whether apartments at Wesbury United Methodist Retirement Community would be included in the inspection program.
“I’m sure it’s going to be counterproductive in the long run,” Roha said. “At least if you make some of the editorial changes, it would go from absolutely abominable to merely awful.”
But after months of buildup, his fellow council members proved unreceptive to any additional delays, with Vogel noting he had submitted his recommendations immediately prior to the meeting.
The outcome in favor of the inspection program perhaps seemed inevitable at the beginning of the year when council members made exploring the proposal a priority and established a subcommittee to work on it. Indeed, four members who voted in favor Wednesday had made the goal of a rental inspection program a central plank in the campaign platforms over the past three years.
But just as similar proposals had been stonewalled multiple times in the past, the proposal encountered vociferous opposition from a group of landlords that attended multiple meetings to raise questions. Costs will be higher than expected, they said, and will be passed onto tenants at a time when inflation was already taking a terrible toll.
Privacy and fairness were also issues — why should tenants have their privacy invaded when owner-occupied homes could have the same health and safety concerns that would be targeted in rental inspections? And why go to the trouble and cost of establishing a new program when the city already has a mechanism for reporting and investigating health and safety concerns in rental units?
The landlord backlash reached a highpoint in August when about 20 rental property owners and managers attended a town hall event. All but one of those who addressed council voiced their opposition to the proposal. Many also expressed skepticism regarding council’s willingness to consider criticism.
By November, however, council was also hearing from greater numbers of tenants who supported the proposal and contradicted arguments that had been raised by landlords. At a standing-room-only meeting, two of those tenants presented a petition they said contained the signatures of more than 1,000 city residents in favor of the proposal.
As council on Wednesday looked ahead to final passage of the rental program ordinance, questions remain. The answer to Roha’s question regarding apartment-style residences at Wesbury must still be determined, for instance.
And while college dormitory rooms are excluded from the program, council has said they will be inspected under the city’s existing rooming house ordinance — a practice that has not been followed in the past.
Council is expected to flesh out those details as well as a fee schedule in January. Previous discussion have projected an annual $38 registration fee for rental units.
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