Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Unlicensed Landlords

I found out this month that 2 people I know personally, who are or were renting out houses in Norristown, don't have rental licenses. I'm now wondering how widespread of a problem this is.

Norristown's ordinance states: "...to rent a single family dwelling the owner would complete a rental license application and submit it to the code department. A code inspector or a member of the Code staff will then contact the applicant to schedule the required property maintenance inspection. Once any violations are repaired the owner will be issued the annual rental license once the ($65.00) fee is paid."

It's slightly more involved for a multi-family dwelling, because zoning has to be in on the process to make sure the owner isn't adding units when they shouldn't be, but the gist is, you have to pay the fee PER UNIT rented. And more importantly, each rental property MUST be inspected by the Codes Department before the license is issued.

One of the landlords I mentioned above used to live in Norristown and when he moved, decided to rent his old house instead of selling it. The problem with this kind of situation, which is all too common in Norristown and elsewhere, is that simply owning a house doesn't mean you ought to be a landlord. I'm sure it never occurred to the man that he ought to check with the borough about licensing or other responsibilities. He found it difficult to deal with his own full time job and family plus come into town every time something needed to be fixed on the house or the walks needed to be shoveled. By not doing so, he inflicted hardship on his tenant. I'm happy to report that he learned his lesson and is no longer a landlord.

The other man, I found out yesterday, owns 5 rental properties in Norristown and not one is licensed. He's been renting out one house on my street for the last 10 years and never had a license for it, nor was it ever inspected by Codes. For this property, at least, he doesn't try to do everything himself, but uses property managers (I suspect he uses the same guys for all his properties). Still, the house on my street is in horrendous condition. Outside alone, the sidewalk is dangerously uneven, the bushes are overgrown, the front screen door is broken, the back porch is rotting and the garage falling apart. Inside the tenant (who's in her 80s) has been putting up with a leaky roof, sewage in the basement, a non-working stove, windows that won't close and lock, a broken furnace, a broken sink, a broken cellar window that took years to get fixed--and that's only the short list.

The tenant had to call 911 one night when the ceiling fell in, which finally made Codes aware of a few of the violations. Her reward is that she's being evicted, with less than 2 weeks notice. Our town government is aware of the situation, but frankly, despite the fact that the landlord wasn't licensed, is in clear violations of Codes on several counts, and abused his tenant by making her live in squalor, I have serious doubts as to whether anyone will lift a finger to help the tenant--the victim in this situation. The bad landlords in this town seem to get away with this sort of thing all the time. In this case, code violations were cited in February and again in June, but only a few of the problems have been fixed.

The landlord in this case, I've heard, is now getting licenses for his properties, but I have yet to see Codes come out for a full inspection. And even then, will they follow up and make sure he does the repairs before renting the house again? I don't know if he paid violation fines or not.

For the rest of you, if you have a derelict rental property on your street, or know of a tenant in distress, you can check to see who owns the property at http://propertyrecords.montcopa.org/Main/Home.aspx. Click through the disclaimer pages, then click on ADDRESS to enter the house number and street, and put NORRISTOWN under Municipality. Once you find the owner's name, you can search by name to find out how many other properties that person owns and where. If you want to find out if the landlord is licensed, you can put in a request to see the license at Municipal Hall.

Since this kind of search is so easy, someone tell me why our government doesn't use it to find unlicensed landlords. According to the last census, we've got nearly 7800 reported rental units in Norristown. That's over a half million bucks in licensing each year. If there are many other unlicensed units, Norristown ought to be actively looking for them. That's a lot of potential revenue, not mention code violation fines. And if Codes follows up, we might see some of our derelict houses repaired.


  1. Code enforcement can't be bothered; too busy citing unkempt lawns.

    I wonder about the house that we share with; if they are licensed or not. I wish that they would police the tenants. Ours leave garbage all over their yard and sometimes it smells so foul that you can't be outside. My husband actually put out their trash after it sat for weeks uncovered and fostering maggots.

    1. You should report the house to Code Enforcement. If they don't respond, contact your Council rep and copy all the other Council reps on the email.

  2. To monitor these problems, such as the license fee and the code inspection along with the status of the inspection and the outstanding items to be rectified, this can all be done on the computer and made available to the public via the internet the same as the county records are. It may be that the administration does not want to do this and it only prolongs the problem. They have had code enforcement problems before (ie Sandy St), when the politicians get involved it will become selective enforcement rather than total enforcement. It is very simple to do this job if they want to, you don't have to be a rocket scientist.