Monday, May 23, 2016

Taking Action Before The Next Tragedy

Memorial for the victims at 825 Dekalb 
Since the tragic fire at 825 Dekalb, I've been reading a lot of comments about the incident, everything from "What do expect of Norristown?" to "This is why no one takes Norristown seriously as a place to invest in." The "this" being slumlords. I've even read comments that blame the victims instead of the landlords. No one came right out and said it, but these commenters seemed to object to the victims' level of income or their race, or both.

The thing is, none of the comments were very constructive or offered solutions. I WAS glad to read in the Times Herald that our good landlords are speaking out against non-licensed rentals, properties without smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, and those so ill-kept that they're dangerous for the tenants.

But again, none of these comments help us solve the problem. And blaming people of other income brackets and races will NEVER improve Norristown. So, after giving it some thought, here are some things we CAN do.

Right after the tragedy, there were a lot of postings encouraging people to report houses in their neighborhoods to the Codes Department if they thought those properties had overcrowding issues or other codes violations. The problem with this is, most of us never go into the houses of our neighbors. We may not even know which houses are rented. Sure, sometimes you can tell just from how many doorbells or electric meters or satellite dishes they have, but are we supposed to inundate Codes with suspicions and no evidence?

Yet, we have 3 sets of individuals who regularly go into houses in Norristown in the course of their work: police officers, firemen and EMTs (emergency medical technicians). When my neighbor's roof collapsed in the middle of the night, she called 911. The firemen who showed up saw codes violations in the house and reported them. The house was found to be an unlicensed rental and the landlord was cited for that and all the codes violations.

However, I've heard stories of firemen being actively discouraged from reporting violations because, they've been told, that it's better not to get involved because nothing will be done anyway. This may have been true in the past but, I hope, not anymore, and especially in light of this recent tragedy.

So, we need to encourage emergency personnel of all sorts to report violations and overcrowded conditions to the Codes department. Maybe even develop an easy automated way to do it. And it wouldn't hurt to somehow encourage social workers, visiting nurses, physical therapists, etc. to do the same.

But how do we find non-licensed rental properties? Actually, we already have the tools, though no one's using them.

First of all, there's a database of Montgomery County deeds online. (Click here for the link.) Most databases have a way to query the information in them. It might  be a simple thing to ask the county for a list of Norristown properties where the address doesn't match the home address of the owner. That list could then be checked against Norristown's list of licensed rental properties. The rental at 825 Dekalb would have been revealed by this method. So would my next door neighbor's house.

This isn't foolproof, of course. Sometimes there's a good reason for an owner to have a different address, perhaps because the owner bought the house for a family member--an elderly parent or a son or daughter. And sometimes, landlords create separate limited-liability companies for each house and use the address of that property (though if they're going to that trouble, they're usually ligit and get a license).

Still, a simple computer search can probably reveal a majority of these non-licensed rentals. Norristown's Municipality may cry that they have no money to pay for the manhours to compare these addresses, or to have someone program a computer to do it. Well, if we find enough violations, the penalties will bring in revenue (and I personally think the max $1000 fine is too low for an unlicensed rental--we should consider raising it). Or perhaps we could find some volunteers around the community who'd be willing to have a crack at it. I'd volunteer my time to check the addresses in my neighborhood. Or hey, pay me minimum wage for a 2-3 weeks and I'll take on the whole project.

But let's not say nothing can be done and sit around to wait for the next tragedy.

At best, please go into the Montco Deeds database and look up the houses on your street. If any are listed as single-family homes, yet you know there's more than one family living there--or if you see any other violations--report the house to  the Codes department by calling the main number at 610-270-0441 during regular hours or at 610-270-0446 after 4:30pm.  Complaints can also be made online at this link .

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