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Rental property inpections divide Chambersburg Borough Council

May 17, 2000|By DON AINES

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - The Chambersburg Borough Council Wednesday appeared to be divided over the issue of whether to require systematic inspections of rental housing.

"A man's home is his castle, whether he owns it or rents it," Councilman Allen Coffman said. He said he was concerned about the privacy of renters.

"Our concern is not their happiness, but their safety," Councilman Carl Helman said in response to one landlord's statement that the borough wanted to "force landlords to provide happiness to tenants."

"I am not ready to go with systematic inspections at this point," said Councilman John Redding.

On April 19 the council held its first meeting to get public input on a draft ordinance that would require inspections of rental units at least once every three years, with property owners paying a $30 inspection fee. The ordinance was drafted by the borough administration in reaction to council concerns about unsafe conditions and deteriorating properties, especially in the downtown.

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The proposal raised objections from a number of rental property owners at last month's meeting. Some raised concerns about the privacy issue and others said they would have to raise rents to pay for inspections and repairs. One landlord said some property owners would try to avoid the inspections by not reporting they were renting houses or apartments.

Jay Lightfoot of Chambersburg suggested that rental housing be inspected only for health and safety violations before or after a tenant moves in, an idea that was supported by some council members.

"I have yet to see the proposal I can support 100 percent," said Councilman William McLaughlin. He said there are strong arguments for vacancy inspections.

The current inspection system is based on the borough receiving complaints about health and safety violations, or on observation by borough officials. The borough has just one building inspector who conducts about 100 inspections a year and some council members said that program could be expanded.

"We're short-handed," said Redding.

Helman presented an alternate proposal that would give landlords a three-year grace period before systematic inspections begin. Landlords who had their properties inspected voluntarily would be able to bring their buildings up to code during that time and, in some cases, qualify for grants and low-interest loans to make the repairs.

Councilwoman Sharon Bigler said there has to be tougher enforcement of building codes, citing an electrical fire last year in which tenants had jump from a second story window. Helman noted the family had complained about wiring problems to the property manager, but they were never fixed.

"I don't want the borough government to look like Big Brother," said Mayor Robert Morris.

He said the flap over systematic inspections had prompted a borough resident opposing the plan to gain access without permission to a rental property he owns and look for safety violations.

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