Apr 8, 2016

Allentown Tenant Association

The Tenant Association was started and is run by two well intentioned young men, Julian Kern and Ken Heffentrager. They believe that there are far too many problem landlords in Allentown, and that the city is lax in dealing with the situation. They routinely display photographs of buildings they consider deficient on their facebook page. They have become regulars at Allentown City Council, where they present their documentation. They are now asking the city to establish a tenant/landlord court, because they believe that the district court system is too lenient on landlords.

Before I was a blogger, and before I was an advocate for the Park System and WPA, I was a landlord. A couple of years ago I explained to Julian and Ken that I don't believe that anybody buys a building with the intention of depreciating their asset. Generally speaking, the current available tenant pool in center city isn't an easy one to deal with. Although, I'm not known to shy away from controversy, I have remained somewhere between neutral and supportive of their efforts. However, I believe now something needs to be addressed, and that is simply that overstated blight designations can actually cause more blight.

Looking at the map above, who would want to invest in that neighborhood? A tenant moves out, leaves an apartment full of furniture and trash. The landlord can't really clean and paint without putting it somewhere, usually outside. The city garbage carrier will only take away a few bags at a time, and only a couple pieces of furniture on a designated night. It's easy to take an unflattering photograph of a property, but is it indicative of its normal condition?

Despite the paint commercials on television, I can tell you that paint now a days starts to fade and peel about ten minutes after it's applied. Nothing in this post is meant to imply that there is no basis to the good work that Julian and Ken are doing. There are certainly deficient landlords and properties, however, there's far too many flags on that map to be in the city's best interest.

ADDENDUM: The Tenant Association,  in addition to calling for a Housing Court,  would also like to see Allentown enforce more state statutes on blight. They apparently don't have the historical perspective to realize that in the recent past Allentown has used blight designations as a backdoor to eminent domain.  The designation was used against the 5th Street residents for the benefit of Sacred Heart Hospital's expansion.  It was used to take the Neuweiler Brewery, although the city has done nothing responsible with the property since.  It was also even used against the former property owners of the arena block.  Any expansion of law requires an ethical government for fair implementation.  The current ethics of city hall are too questionable to encourage them with more legalized weapons.


Scott Armstrong said...

They want the city to set up a separate court ? That is a red flag for me. If one doesn't like the way rulings are going at the local magistrate go through the normal procedure and vote them out of office. I always say, the only thing worse than the original problem is the governments solution. I also have been know to say, when you are looking for the government to solve your problem you are looking in the wrong place.
Ken and Julian have done a lot of good and deserve credit for their efforts. This one seems misguided.

Scott Armstrong said...

By the way Mike, there is no shortage of properties that are visibly in need of repair, there are plenty of sidewalks and curbs that are buckled and crumbling, and yes, litter and yards filled with debris are commonplace. It is however simplistic to lay all this at the feet of "landlords". The bad landlords are only part of Allentown's problems. The real problem is the people in charge, followed closely behind by those who put them there.

michael molovinsky said...

scott@7:59, scott, as a former neighborhood captain in an area where i operated buildings, you know that i do have both experience and expertise on this topic. as one who was in the business for over 35 years, although it's very politically incorrect to say, the main difference in allentown's appearance is the tenant base. i actually built a new building in 1985, while by 1994 i was willing to sell below cost. the current tenant base is very tough on property, and drops everything to the street, thus the litter. allentown's trash policy is woefully deficient for the reality of the demographics. there should be no limit on the amount of trash allowed to be put out by a landlord. that change alone would help the cityscape enormously. we should downsize the parking authority, and establish a litter and trash authority.

Ray Nemeth Sr said...

It is all well and good for someone to look around and say this property is an eye sore, and lets get government to force repairs or remodeling. Think about this. Has anyone looked at the economics of these properties? Are the landlords making money, or just hanging on. Have these areas increased in value? Is there a market for these properties? Be very careful, because if the economics become untenable, you will start down the road to Detroit. Raise taxes and regulations to make these properties money losers, then they start to be abandoned, once that starts it could be slide that cannot be stopped. I don't live in Allentown, but has anyone called a meeting of land lords to hear their side of the situation.

michael molovinsky said...

ray@8:58, you show insight not commonly appreciated on inter-city property. landlording has been a vilified occupation forever. people use the term landlord and slumlord interchangeably, with no regard to a particular landlords performance. in 1998, when the rental inspection program was instituted under the heydt administration, i warned of stigmatizing an already maligned business in allentown. today, julian and ken, and even scott armstrong, think the problems would be solved if only there were more inspectors and inspections. if only the stick was bigger. as a student of local real estate, i can tell you that thousands of intercity houses have been sold in the last five years for under 25K; we have already started down the road to detroit, and nobody yet in charge understands the problems or the solutions. with an understanding of where we were headed, i ran as an independent for mayor in 2005. in january of 2006, after pawlowski was elected the previous november, he invited 100 people as an advisory committee, but not me. reilly has a $billion dollars worth of taxpayer paid new buildings on hamilton street, but the city looks like garbage from any direction that you approach downtown.

LVCI said...

Please forgive me if this gets wordy-- Years ago A fella from work bought a 3 unit @ 13th & Tuner. 2 of the 3 were elderly at the time. What he didn't know was the prior owner was dumping it because both those elderly couples were moving out. Landlords have little say when it comes to whom they can refuse to rent. What he got instead was two units from hell. He'd have to drive down from Carbon County 2 to 3 times a month trying to collect rent. Twice physically threatened. And a $300 water bill because a hose was left running and one of the toilets no one notified him of. all in all he lost his butt on the deal

Also years ago my brother bought a 2 unit near 9th & Jackson. Spent nearly $10,000 on doing repairs himself. Neighbors were thrilled how nice the place was starting to look. Unbeknownst to him the prior owner racked up city inspections fines. Even though my brother made repairs, these were still owed. One tenant got a dog (not permitted in the lease). It crapped an peed on the brand new hall carpet my brother installed. The other tenant (who already lived there) was a outpatient. He had a couple of incidents. The worst being a kitchen fire. He like the fella from work would have to kiss butt trying to collect rent.

LVCI said...

I once helped manage and maintain almost 300 units. We had Cedar Glen, Valley Park East, West and Catty at the time. While we had some very good renters I could tell you dozens of stories about others. I was physically threatened and harassed. Expected to resolve disputes between neighboring units as well as parking arguments. Repair numerous expensive vandalisms. And testify in lawsuits.

The point is.. there's plenty of blame to go around. If anyone thinks only the city or landlords are a problem they need work a few months in the rental business. If there's to be any kind of change, the landlords need more support being able to get rid of problem tenants. Tenants themselves need to be held more accountable. Not just landlords.

I'm sure there's more then a few bad landlords who fail to maintain, but I can tell you from first hand experience how frustrating it can be when police get tired of the crap and stop responding. Having to clean up after slobs. Repair the damage they do. Trust me when I say I worked extremely hard (just like that fella from work and my brother) to do the right thing. Sometimes, no matter how hard you try your never gonna appease people. Some renters just don't give a shit. That's reality.

Julian Kern said...

Let me clarify a few things. 1. We have advocated for a housing court. The reason is so the housing court can have a better understanding of the housing issues related to problem landlords and problem tenants. Right now the magistrates see various types of cases but landlord-tenant cases are the most type of cases they see on a daily basis. 2. We are not out to attack all landlords in the city. We understand the problem is both bad landlords and bad tenants. Trust me we have visited rentals and have seen how dirty some of these tenants can be. We are not afraid to tell those tenants to clean up their mess and stop complaining about bugs that are being caused by them for example. 3. We are trying to get the city to address the rental issues in the city which does include the slumlords and slum tenants. 4. When it comes to the issue of blighted properties lets remember the redevelopment authority was inactive for years until we hounded the city that they were sitting on blighted properties they owned for numerous years. Thanks to us the redevelopment authority is now active again and going after these blighted properties that are just sitting there rotting away.

The blighted property problem has gotten worse under Pawlowski's administration and that is a fact. We have met with past city employees who had involved in code enforcement and the redevelopment authority. Pawlowski gutted the redevelopment authority and put limited resources into code enforcement. He would direct code enforcement how he saw fit. Some landlords received stricter treatment from code enforcement while others got away with having code violations. Hmm I wonder why that is? Hopefully the FBI can dig into it and expose the corruption.

Allentown needs to get their act together and tackle these issues which includes tenants who destroy the city along with the slumlords such as the city's biggest slumlord Joe Clark who has gotten away with neglecting his rentals for many years. If the city continues to ignore these problems then we will have a city that is an eyesore and who will want to invest in the city.

michael molovinsky said...

julian, i believe that this issue of rentals is one of the most important facing allentown. i assume that you realize that my intention here was to provide a venue for discussing this issue. i would ask that all commenters refrain from mentioning any landlord by name, and restrict comments to issues, not particular people.