My plan to address the housing situation and ensure quality housing: This issue is specifically near to my heart. I have a brother, sister-in-law, two nieces, and a nephew who live on the north side of town in an apartment that would most likely be condemned. In fact, they have had to live in a number of these places over the years, and it breaks my heart.
Historically, addressing the issue has boiled down to the question, “Should the City Council be more focused on finding a solution for the people or should the focus be on landlords as business owners?” I believe we can find some solutions that ultimately have benefits and incentives for both.
As I have talked with and listened to many people, I have come to understand that the issue of housing is actually quite complex. For every substandard rental unit there is an individual or family that depends on that housing no matter how awful the conditions. They cannot afford to be displaced or in a constant pattern of movement and unrest. On the other hand, owners cannot afford to have their properties constantly turned around or mistreated and the costs for repairs and upkeep have increased exponentially over the years. It is also important to realize that the government is limited when it comes to individual and property rights. I do not believe in condemning properties where people are currently living or giving landlords immediate ultimatums that include hefty fines even though that is often the first thing that comes to most peoples’ minds.
Leb. City Council Bill 15, which passed in 2006, titled ESTABLISHING A RESIDENTIAL RENTAL HOUSING LICENSING AND INSPECTION SYSTEM AND ESTABLISHING ADMINISTRATIVE PROVISIONS, FEES AND PENALTIES needs to be revisited and revised!
With the current system, a rental property is only inspected when first purchased, and then only inspected again if a complaint is made (which impoverished people are hesitant to do for fear of losing their home). The issue we have in Lebanon City right now is that there are a lot of long-term landlords who have allowed their properties to degrade over the years and now fail to keep them properly maintained. This needs to change.
I plan to propose that every rental unit should be inspected and certified by public safety prior to each new renter. An inspection should be mandatory as a part of every new rental agreement. This is important for landlords and tenants alike. For landlords, this certifies the condition of the property before the tenant moves in. This will give landlords a baseline for pursuing damages or keeping security deposits if anything were to happen while the unit was occupied. It also protects the tenant from landlords who repeatedly keep tenants security deposits - not because the tenant damaged the property but because the property was substandard when the tenant moved in, which makes it nearly impossible for the tenant to fight. This is a major factor in keeping people trapped in substandard housing – landlords keep security deposits whether the rental’s condition was the tenants fault or not. This prevents the tenant from having a security deposit to move into another place. It will also help both landlord and tenant distinguish between actual damage and normal wear and tear.
By requiring these inspections, properties in Lebanon City will begin to be upgraded on a rolling basis as they become vacant. As properties in better condition become available, people will naturally want to move to them and away from those that are not and so on. This will also give current landlords/large property owners/property managers the ability to upgrade over some time rather than getting hit all at once.
Current regulations require landlords to register and pay an annual fee of $40 each year per apartment, $20 per rented room. I would suggest that we wave that requirement in lieu of the fee landlords will have to pay for inspections or, if registering apartments that are rented on a long-term basis is still a good thing, possibly crediting the registration fee against the inspection costs. Payment for inspection can be split between landlord and tenant because it is in both of their best interest to invest in an apartment that can be rented long-term.
I have heard some people make remarks concerning the cleanliness of renters or the care they take of the landlord’s properties. I can understand those concerns, and landlords have the ability to address that directly in their rental agreements. Landlords also have the ability to be discerning concerning the tenants they accept, or the intervals in which they require personal inspections, as well. This is not the City’s responsibility. However, I do not feel we should lower our standards or expectations of our City’s residents or landlords to accommodate substandard living practices, abuse of one another’s property, or substandard for property management. I do, however, believe the tone of those standards and expectations has to come from City Hall.
Finally, another reason landlords fail to maintain their properties is an abundance of impoverished people in need of places to live; this gets back to supply and demand. Desperate people are willing to take anything when they need a place to stay, and the source of their desperation also needs to be addressed. There are some exceptional initiatives happening in Lebanon City through the non-profit sector and more coming in the near future to address workforce training, cultural integration, etc… These are projects and programs that address or will address some of the sources of poverty such as language barriers, the lack of credit or credit repair, etc. The City does not need to be directly involved in these initiatives, but I think the City should do what it can to direct and inform people of resources available to them, and to foster these initiatives where they can. I believe sometimes the City needs to set the tone and then get out of the way of those who are already active and engaged in the work. I have heard a number of stories where this has not been the case under our City’s current administration. The next step (which I believe needs to happen in coordination with the first step) is to repair the sidewalks in the city. It is one thing to tell people that they should do a better job of cleaning up trash and working to fix the interior/exterior of their homes, but it’s another to say that they must pay thousands of dollars that many of them do not have, to fix the pavements outside of their homes. Obviously if someone has the financial capability to repair their own sidewalks, then we should expect them to do so. However, this is not the case for the majority of people who live in the city, and it would not be difficult to set up a financial metric to determine the need. If the City does its part to show residents that we care and are invested in improving the quality of living, it has been proven that people would feel more inclined to do the same.
My plan to enhance the Image of Lebanon City: (outside of ensuring quality housing)
If we are going to enhance our city image, we are first going to need to enhance the image of our downtown. Unlike the dilemma of housing, I see this as being a less challenging issue overall. We have a diverse, culture rich community and the location of Lebanon City cannot be beat! In fact, Lebanon is probably the most ideally placed city in the entire state of Pennsylvania - 45 minutes in any direction to be in a major city or attraction, 1 hour 30 minutes to Philadelphia, Allentown, 2-4 hours to reach 5 other States, Pittsburgh, New York City, Baltimore, Washington DC, and the Atlantic Coast! To be perfectly honest, if Pennsylvania is the “Keystone State”, then Lebanon City is the “Cornerstone of the Keystone State”, It would be hard to find a better location with as much to offer than Lebanon, PA. What Lebanon lacks, however, is streamlined communication that tells people what’s happening throughout the City and Downtown, business diversity, community outreach initiatives, quality side walks, a clean road, and a boost of energy. Moving the Lebanon City Municipal building to the downtown area is a fantastic first step, This will help move the process of image enhancement considerably, but we still have a ways to go. Zaelys and I will be visiting 6 major cities in the surrounding area to meet with their government officials and explore what has worked and hasn't worked for them.
Another issue right now - the cost to repair both the roads and the sidewalk in downtown Lebanon would cost the city between $2.22 and $3 million dollars; this is a huge cost considering our annual budget does not typically exceed much more than $15 million dollars per year. So realistically, the only way we as a city are going to be able to address this issue soon, is through diverse fundraising and grant seeking initiatives. Again it’s not going to be easy, but I believe with enough dedication we can get there.
For clarification: the only opportunities the City is currently seeking which will allow us to repair the downtown are two grant opportunities from the state that we have already been rejected for 2 times.
My plans for the future:
I plan to be involved in public service for the rest of my life. I cannot foresee the future; however, I am incredibly ambitious, so as long as doors continue to open, I intend to move forward into the space they create. For now I can say emphatically that I genuinely believe in Lebanon City and the potential of our residents. It is the home of my family, past and future generations, and I truly want to work towards making it a better place. My focus is here right now, so I am not thinking about or worring too much about where I am going to go next.