In 2013, the city of Wilkes-Barre passed the "One Strike" ordinance into law. It allows the city code office to SHUT DOWN a rental unit (or an entire multi-unit building) if ANYONE tenant, visitor, etc. is arrested on property. Arrested, not convicted. This was Mayor Tom Leighton's political grandstand against rising crime in the city. Supposedly the law is aimed at "slumlords" - absentee landlords who rent to just anyone without the benefit of tenant screening. And supposedly it is aimed at cutting down the incidents of drug and gun crimes in the city. Sounds reasonable, right?
Wrong! Aside from the glaring Constitutional issues around Due Process, Wilkes-Barre code enforcement recently used One Strike to shut down a unit whose tenant was arrested OFF-PROPERTY. Another unit was shut down for a case of child neglect.
Some of you may be thinking what I used to think, "well, this won't happen to me, I'm a GOOD landlord, I screen my tenants and deal with problems!" Think again.
My husband and I have a little rental real estate company that owns and/or manages 23 units in the city limits. We are as vigilant and hands-on as landlords can be, and operated for over seven years without any problems with the city. Then on March 5, one of our units was raided by police looking for a drug dealer who was not our tenant. And they found one of our tenants with a shotgun and several bags of marijuana. He was arrested, and our unit was shut down. We cannot rent it to anyone for six months.
It's like saying anytime a crime occurs in the city of Wilkes-Barre, the Mayor's office should be shut down for six months. Because he should have known what was going on in his city, right? So he is liable!
Some of you may be thinking "that is unconstitutional and wrong - isn't the ACLU suing the city in federal court?" Yes, but... the wheels of justice move slowly. The case was filed in January. It may be heard this summer. Or next summer. Meanwhile, Wilkes-Barre Assistant Solicitor William Vinsko is convinced he can defend the law in court. And Mayor Leighton says he will continue to enforce the ordinance. At a recent press conference in response to the uptick in crime Leighton once again blamed the property owners. Wilkes-Barre Code Enforcement has shut down several units, including ours, since the ACLU filed their complaint.
How this affects you if you're not from Wilkes-Barre: other municipalities are watching what happens with Wilkes-Barre's One Strike. And not just in Pennsylvania! If this ordinance is challenged in court and goes down in flames it sends a message to governments EVERYWHERE that they simply cannot violate our property rights in an attempt to solve their problems. They need to invest more in police and neighborhood watch programs. Simply blaming an easy target like landlords is lazy. And ineffective. But it's spreading like a cancer!
Wilkes-Barre isn't the only city with an ordinance like One Strike. Scranton has one. Hazleton has one. Williamsport has one. Philadelphia has one that's even worse - they flat out take the deed to your property! And there are other cities who do not have such an ordinance, but are thinking about it. Maybe yours.
We real estate investors need to push back, and push hard! To appeal One Strike, a landlord must pay a $100 filing fee to appear in front on the same body that ordered the shut down - the Wilkes-Barre City Code Enforcement board. That hearing occurs over a month after the shut down, so your investment is already losing money. We appeared at this kangaroo court and pleaded our case - and in front of the newspaper and TV reporters. (We invited a few friends!) Not surprisingly, our appeal was denied. But we have the right to appeal their decision to a court of competent jurisdiction.
Wilkes-Barre city government tried to be clever when they wrote One Strike into law. It shuts down an apartment for six months. Six months lost rent at our apartment that was shut down is $3,000, plus any utility costs the landlord must now pay. A lawsuit in the nearest court of competent jurisdiction, which is the Luzerne County Court of Common Pleas, can cost upward of $10,000 when attorney's fees, court reporters, depositions, etc are all paid for. And there's no guaranty of a win. That has been enough to discourage every other landlord from filing in the Court of Common Pleas. It just isn't worth it, from a business standpoint.
Only we think it is! We have 23 units in the city - any one of which could be shut down at any time, for reasons beyond our control. We have no desire to live with that fear. One Strike has brought investing to a standstill in Wilkes-Barre - who wants to risk that kind of interruption to cash flow?
"So I won't invest in Wilkes-Barre, I'll just go buy somewhere else" - logical. Except this attitude of government using Civil Forfeiture against investment property owners is spreading like a cancer. You can run but you may not be able to hide for much longer. Like we learned in the hallway in 9th grade, sometimes the only way to deal with a bully is to punch him in the stomach with a good left hook.
If we can get 500 real estate investors to donate $20, we'll have the money to sue Wilkes-Barre in the Luzerne County Court of Common Pleas and send a clear message to city governments everywhere that we will not put up with the trampling of our property rights! A win will set legal precedent and make governments think twice before signing such Draconian ordinances into law. And landlords already affected by laws like One Strike may have a clearer path to recovering their own damages.
What if we lose? I don't think we will. But we are willing to take this fight to higher courts, all the way to the State Supreme Court if necessary. My husband and I worked in media for 30 years before embarking on our real estate endeavor. I still do. We know our way around a newsroom, so this will be a loud fight.
Please consider making a donation so we can fight this urgent fight. WHEN WE WIN a cash settlement from the city, we will reimburse our building owner for lost rents and pay all legal expenses related to the case. Anything left over will be moved into a fund we will set up specifically to help our fellow real estate investors fight the talons of overreaching government.
Thank you for your time and consideration,
Good People Good Homes/GPGH Management