Group Calls for Tenants' Bill of Rights in State College – Statecollege.com

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Members of Central PA United held a rally on Monday, May 16, 2022, outside of the State College Municipal Building to call for a tenants’ bill of rights. Photo by Geoff Rushton | StateCollege.com
State College residents and a local political advocacy coalition are calling on the borough council to implement measures to ensure renters have safe housing and are protected from abusive practices by landlords.
Members of Central PA United held a rally before Monday night’s State College Borough Council meeting and during the meeting introduced a proposed tenants’ bill of rights.
“We are here because we think there’s a housing crisis happening in Centre County and in the country as a whole, and we think that the State College Borough Council can do something about it,” Emiliano Cambra-Morales, a borough resident and organizer for Central PA United, said during public comment.
After canvasing renters in State College and surrounding communities, the organization developed a list of seven tenants’ rights and measures the borough can take to support them.
Here’s what the bill of rights includes.
• A fully funded and staffed borough Office of Tenants’ Rights that can respond to tenant claims, create a proactive system of code enforcement, have a rent withholding program and provide support to tenants exercising their rights.
“The ability to have a local government office that supports tenants is the only way to make good on the promise of any bill of rights,” Cambra-Morales said.
• Counsel in eviction court, with the borough dedicating permanent annual resources to ensure tenants can access an attorney during eviction proceedings.
• Knowing who a tenant’s landlord is. Cambra-Morales said many tenants are unclear about who actually owns the residence they live in, which can cause problems such as being unable to get repairs in a timely manner and being charged “vague and unclear fees.” The group is calling for council to pass an ordinance to establish a rental registry that clearly lists the owner and/or person responsible for every rental property in the borough, as well as a rental inspection ordinance that includes an inspection grading system to ensure renters know the quality of the homes they are renting.
• Knowing tenants’ rights. The bill states that tenants are often unaware or have been misinformed about their rights, leading to people signing leases that allow those rights to be violated. It calls for the rental registry ordinance to include a “good landlord” designation that encourages landlords to follow best practices and inform tenants of their legal rights.
• Knowing the history of a rental unit. Landlords may charge cleaning fees and withhold security deposits but still keep the same conditions for the next tenant or charge a tenant for repairs and maintenance for which the landlord is responsible and that should have been handled before move-in, the bill states. Tenants should be aware of property issues, particularly those that affect habitability. While the borough council doesn’t have the authority to require that landlords to do so, Central PA United says it can create a website for tenants to report such issues.
• Protection against retaliation for organizing. Tenants must be free to organize in order to fight back against abusive landlords, the group says, without fear of having lease renewals canceled or being evicted. Borough council doesn’t have the power to stop landlords from arbitrarily refusing to renew leases, so Central PA United is pushing to advocate for changes to state law to make it possible.
• Ability to rent a home, regardless of past eviction status. Many people are evicted for reasons beyond their control and shouldn’t be penalized for it in the future, according to the bill. Council doesn’t have the legal authority to change that, but again the group wants to advocate for changes to state law.
Several borough residents spoke in favor of the measures during Monday’s meeting and shared their own stories.
Max Hully said after a heavy snowfall last winter, a portion of the roof over the front door of his rental home collapsed. He says he informed his landlord, who showed up a week later, not to fix the problem, but to repeat a previously failed inspection and to talk to Hully about raising his rent by $400.
“Meanwhile the place is falling apart around us,” Hully said. “Without a service to go to find out what do I do, how do I hold him accountable instead of charging me more for something worse, I’m at a loss for what to do.”
Maggie Hernandez said that after the first home they rented in the borough was sold, the new owner came to talk to them about signing a new lease with a $700 a month rent increase. After telling him they wouldn’t be able to afford it, Hernandez says they were harassed for the next several months before they moved out.
“The amount of anxiety and stress I experienced, which co-occurred with serious health issues I was experiencing at the time, made the last few months of living in my residence unbearable,” Hernandez said.
Borough Councilman Gopal Balachandran, who ran on the Central PA United ticket with Divine Lipscomb and Richard Biever last year, told StateCollege.com he is supportive of the tenants’ bill of rights. He plans to address it with council and potentially bring forward a resolution to adopt many of the ideas.
First, though, he said he needs to think about the best ways to address the issues.
“I’d like to make sure there aren’t redundancies or inefficiencies,” he said. “For example, Student Legal Services and Mid-Penn Legal Services provide legal services for these issues, so I’d like to make sure we coordinate with these organizations. I also will need to think through the specifics of how to effectuate these laudable goals.”
Balachandran said it’s an important issue to him because so many borough residents are renters. According to U.S. Census data, the owner-occupied housing unit rate in State College is only about 27%.
“I want to make sure everyone has adequate and clean housing and isn’t mistreated,” he said. “More broadly, many communities are facing the same issues where a private equity LLC is their landlord, which makes it even harder to get someone to listen and/or take care of problems or get security deposits back. It’s become a lucrative business and I want to make sure our most vulnerable residents are not taken advantage of.”
The office of Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who is now running for governor, has taken a specific interest in landlord-tenant issues in State College. In recent years, Shapiro’s office has reached settlements with several local property managers over alleged illegal tenant fees and filed a lawsuit accusing landlord Rodney Hendricks of levying illegal charges on tenants and providing residences with unlivable conditions.
Hernandez said tenant issues in the State College area are reflective of a national problem resulting in abuses and displacement.
“A tenant bill of rights is not only necessary, it is a life-saving measure,” Hernandez said. “Housing is a human right and it is not up for debate.”
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