If you’ve been reading this blog all along, you’re probably familiar with One Strike. It’s actually the reason this blog was started. I should send the city code enforcement office a fruit basket – perhaps I will, after the ACLU wins the lawsuit and the ordinance goes down in flames. Not that I want to rub it in or anything…
The Wilkes-Barre One Strike Ordinance – A Review
In September of 2013, city council passed the One Strike ordinance, championed by then-Mayor Thomas Leighton giving city code enforcement to authority to shut down rental properties if anyone on premises – a tenant, guest, squatter, it really doesn’t matter – was arrested on charges involving drugs or firearms. This shut-down occurred at the point of arrest – no conviction needed. The dwelling would be immediately closed by code enforcement, meaning everyone would have to leave immediately. Even the residents who were not leaving in handcuffs. The first time One Strike was enforced, a man was arrested at his girlfriend’s apartment on drug charges. He was taken into police custody, the girlfriend was turned out on the streets.
That’s horrible in itself. Maybe the girlfriend was involved in the drug dealing and these were her consequences. Or maybe she wasn’t. Either way, she deserves due process.
Then this: Wilkes-Barre also shut down the rental unit where (ACLU) plaintiff Elizabeth Mattern lived with her four-year-old daughter after police arrested the daughter’s father at the property on an outstanding warrant and found a small amount of drugs on his person. Although the man did not live in the rental unit, the city immediately evicted Mattern and her daughter from their home. When Mattern arrived home from work, she found a closure notice on her door. Several minutes later, three police officers showed up and told her she had ten minutes to get her belongings and leave. When she was unable to collect her belongings that quickly, police arrested her and took her to jail. She was released several hours later without any charges. (Read the entire article from the ACLU website here: http://www.aclupa.org/news/2015/01/22/aclu-pa-files-suit-challenging-wilkes-barres-one-strike-rent)
Did you catch the age of the child rendered homeless? Four years old. I don’t even need due process to know that child was innocent of all charges!
But Wilkes-Barre didn’t stop there. One Strike closed the unit for six months. That landlord loses his investment. Sure hope he or she isn’t depending on that cash flow to pay a mortgage, taxes, insurance or sewer payments! If the average apartment rents for $600/month, that’s a $3,600 loss. I prefer to call it Grand Larceny.
My One Strike Story
As I was following the One Strike ordinance and its enforcement in the news, I knew it would only be a matter of time before my number came up. My husband and I had 16 units within the city limits. Since there’s absolutely nothing landlords can do about the actions of their tenants – except run standard background screenings and hope for the best – it’s pretty much a matter of luck whether or not you’ll be shut down by One Strike. I vowed the moment it happened it would take me about 15 seconds to file a lawsuit.
Adam Peters beat me to it. His was the first unit shut down in September 2013, his building got the photo op of Mayor Leighton placing the poster on the door. In January of 2015, Peters filed his lawsuit, backed by the ACLU, along with two other landlords and two tenants affected by One Strike. This lawsuit isn’t just seeking financial damages and the striking down of the ordinance. They’re going after emotional and psychological harm as well. Good for them! I only wish the money damages could be taken out of the pockets of ex-Mayor Leighton and everyone else involved in passing this stupid law. Instead, the bill will be presented to the already strained city finances, and will be passed on to the taxpayers. So landlords will pay again.
One would think a federal lawsuit would suspend the enforcement of One Strike, but Mayor Leighton only grew defiant. And then our number came up.
Well, sort of. It wasn’t our building. It belonged to an investment partner of ours. It was in one of the city’s rougher neighborhoods. What a nightmare. It took us literally months to find suitable tenants for that 3-unit building that passed our industry-standard background checks – the same ones we used for the previous seven years.
Police came to the building in March of 2015 to question the third floor tenant about the whereabouts of her adult son, who did not live with her. They smelled marijuana in the hallway coming from the second floor apartment. They knocked on the door and the 19-year-old kid who lived there opened it. That’s when they saw the baggies of marijuana on the kitchen table. He got busted, as he should have. But his 21-year-old brother who was working that night lost his home. And our investment partner lost six months of income.
That’s what made Ginger Snap. Before that incident I was an overworked, underpaid media professional trying for the past seven years to transition into a career as a real estate entrepreneur. My husband and I had a growing rental portfolio and we were getting into partnerships with other investors. We renovated several vacant and blighted properties in the area – put them back on the tax rolls. Steve was doing this full-time. I was still working and helping out best I could, while raising our little daughter. We were embodying the American Dream. What Wilkes-Barre was doing was downright Soviet.
I sent out press releases to local media – both city newspapers, WILK radio and WBRE-TV responded. I spent my own money on a Philadelphia lawyer to represent us in the appeal. A joke of a process – we were denied before we even set foot in the courtroom – but we got some nice TV coverage. I spoke before city council and got a standing ovation. I started this blog. I was lining up podcasts and interview segments on conservative talk radio shows across the state. I was going to embark on a speaking tour of Real Estate Investors Association meetings in an effort to raise money for a prolonged court battle. I figured I could get 500 landlords to each give me $20.
I wanted to take this fight through the Commonwealth court system, alongside what the ACLU was doing in federal court. Our investment partner did not. He wanted to wait for the ACLU.
Around this time I was starting to get some not-so-subtle hints regarding the consequences of fighting city hall. It was brought to my attention that no one in our little investment group had a real estate license. Never mind that you don’t actually need one to do what we were doing – if someone wanted to cause trouble for us we’d have to waste lots of time and money defending ourselves. One property manager I wanted to work with backed away from us because of what I was saying in my blog, “poking the bear.” We were warned by a couple of lawyers that we worked with on other matters not to “poke the bear.”
I want to set one thing straight for the record. I did not fold like a cheap suit. I did not back down from my resolve. I strategically retreated. Since May, I have been working tirelessly to make our business Titanium. I was coming back for that bear!
Federal Judge James M. Munley will take down Wilkes-Barre’s One Strike Ordinance. This I am sure of. Munley is a pretty important name here in coal country. My guess is the corrupt heavy-handedness of this city’s government doesn’t scare him all that much. I am encouraged by the way he ruled in the Hazleton case - http://www.mcall.com/news/nationworld/pennsylvania/mc-hazleton-immigration-act-legal-bills-20151007-story.html
Munley struck down then-Mayor Lou Barletta’s unconstitutional immigration ordinance in 2007, then awarded $1.4 million to civil rights attorneys in the case in 2015. Barletta’s law penalized businesses who hired immigrants found to be illegal – and also landlords who rented to them. The ACLU got involved in this one, too. The good thing that came out of this – no other city will try to pass an ordinance infringing upon the rights of business and property owners in this way ever again. The bad thing: a $1.4 million dollar strain to Hazleton’s budget.
The taxpayers of the city of Hazleton now owe over a million bucks. Lou Barletta is now a congressman. It’s too bad we can’t make him pay the penalties personally! But I guess that would be unconstitutional. Funny how people like that only care about constitutional protections under certain circumstances.
No, it doesn’t look good for One Strike. The attorney who wrote the ordinance, Bill Vinsko, was kicked out of office as the first official act of the new mayor. One of our operatives reached City Solicitor Tim Henry in his office on Martin Luther King, Junior Day. He answered his own phone. Must have gone in to get some work done in the peace and quiet. She asked him about One Strike, now that Vinsko’s gone will the city drop the ordinance? Henry told her it was a popular law. She pressed him about the ACLU lawsuit. He told her the plan was to file motions to dismiss, kicking the can down the road as long as possible. And what law firm are you calling from again?
February 10th. That’s the end of the fourteen days Judge Munley gave the city to address the ACLU complaint. Tick. Tock.