Rentals make up an increasing share of Philadelphia’s housing stock, and although the city is responsible for making sure rentals are safe and livable, it inspects only about 7% of rental units each year, according to a report by the Pew Charitable Trusts.
“That it was that low was certainly a surprise to us,” said Octavia Howell, the report’s author and a manager of the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Philadelphia research and policy initiative.
The lack of inspections means an unknown number of Philadelphia tenants could be living in homes that endanger their health and safety.
Despite the city’s historical reputation as a city of homeowners, almost half of Philadelphia’s households — about 300,000 — rent their homes, according to Pew estimates. The city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections mainly relies on residents’ complaints to trigger inspections, a reality of limited resources and a broad range of departmental responsibilities, according to L&I.
The pandemic has helped more people realize that the quality of a home can affect the household’s health and well-being. The report Pew released Thursday analyzed Philadelphia’s approach to rental code enforcement. It aims to encourage city policymakers to consider different options to ensure Philadelphians, especially those earning low incomes who have few choices about where to live, reside in safe homes, Howell said.
Some policymakers worry that cracking down on enforcement of rental housing standards could burden landlords who have been struggling during the pandemic, leading to higher rents and displacement of tenants. They “see a trade-off between making rental properties safer and maintaining affordability for the city’s large low-income population,” Howell said.
“We acknowledge these concerns and tenant advocates also do,” she said, “but they say that failing to enforce basic rental housing standards for all perpetuates a dual inequitable housing market with one set of standards for households with low incomes and another for everyone else.”
Pew examined rental code enforcement in nine other cities that, like Philadelphia, have large inventories of rental housing with a high percentage of units built before 1980 and/or located in single-family or duplex homes. It found that enforcement varies widely but that Philadelphia and others are exploring new ways to ensure landlords meet rental standards.
Some cities, such as Baltimore, aim to inspect properties around the time they are registered as rentals and periodically afterward, according to Pew. New York and Chicago join Philadelphia in depending on resident complaints, but tenants can be hesitant to complain for fear of retribution from landlords, which is illegal.
Howell suggested Philadelphia officials consider conducting periodic inspections of all rental units rather than waiting for complaints. But in 2017, L&I told City Council that it would have to spend $3.4 million annually to employ 52 additional people to inspect every rental unit every five years. The department already has trouble recruiting.
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“We’re down to fewer than 45 code enforcement inspectors who have a really wide range of responsibilities,” L&I spokesperson Karen Guss said. “Both responsibilities that make sense as core building safety responsibilities but also other stuff that they’re expected to do.”
For example, L&I inspectors who examine rental properties also are charged with enforcing the city’s plastic-bag ban.
The city could try using third-party inspectors to supplement its employees, Howell said. The city does use third-party professional inspectors to test for lead, and doing the same for broader rental inspections is worth discussing, Guss said.
The nation’s capital trains city residents as contract workers to inspect properties. L&I hasn’t considered taking this step, which could be particularly challenging in Philadelphia, Guss said, since four in five rental properties are single-family buildings, and residents would have to allow amateur inspectors to enter.
Philadelphia also could inspect all of a property owners’ rental units if one has significant violations, as Portland, Ore., does, Howell said. L&I has done this occasionally, according to Guss.
L&I is primarily responsible for enforcing the property maintenance, safety, and zoning standards landlords must meet. But since the department doesn’t have enough code enforcement officers to do this and other work, the city relies on landlords to keep their properties up to code. Property owners self-certify that their units are safe and habitable.
Some cities make repairs for property owners who don’t comply with safety regulations. Philadelphia City Council passed legislation last month that would have the city pay to fix safety hazards and bill the owner. The city also offers loans for landlords who can’t afford repairs.
Pew found through interviews with landlords that whether they maintain their units depends on the amount of rent they receive, the probability and severity of consequences for noncompliance, and the market demand for even units in poor condition, driven by tenants’ low incomes and prior evictions, which limit choices.
When code violations come to light, Howell said, “it can take a really long time before a landlord has a financial consequence.” Code violations that are referred to the city’s Law Department might not get to court for six or more months. L&I is expanding the use of handheld electronic devices to document violations and site violation notices, which allow property owners to settle cases more quickly for a set fine without having to go to court.
Further hindering proactive rental code enforcement are the rental units throughout the city that are unlicensed and where landlords operate under the radar. The city’s large share of single-family rentals look the same as owner-occupied homes. One- or two-family rental homes in distressed neighborhoods are least likely to be licensed. They also are most likely to be rented by low-income households.
The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.