As students return for the fall semester in many Pennsylvania universities and colleges, there are traditional welcome back parties. On campus, campus police regulates parties but off campus parties are less controlled and typically louder and wilder events. After several weekends of rowdy wild off campus parties which disturbed neighbors, led to underage drinking, fighting, arrests and saw a number of students taken to hospitals for alcohol consumption, the City of Bethlehem decided to enforce a city rental ordinance that had been on the books for almost twenty years but rarely used.
The city ordinance essential provides that a code enforcement officer may direct a landlord to evict a tenant if the tenant has been cited with three “disruptive conduct” violations within a year. The ordinance defines “disruptive conduct” as any form of conduct that is a violation of existing city ordinances and/or state law where the Police have issued a Citation and the Citation has been successfully prosecuted or a guilty plea entered before a District Justice.
The ordinance is clearly focused on controlling disruptive student behavior and is limited to regulated rental units occupied by three or more non-blood related persons, but no more than five, under the same lease agreement.
Under the ordinance, each lease agreement must include a provision notifying the tenants of the ordinance and the risk of eviction. Most lease agreements already have some provision requiring a tenant to obey all local and state ordinances but those provisions are general focused on the use of the premises in compliance with city zoning ordinances and not the conduct of the tenant.
Bethlehem’s ordinance is based on a similar ordinance from the City of Bloomsburg with was upheld by the U.S. District Courts for the Middle District Of Pennsylvania. In Bloomsburg Landlords Ass’n v. Town Of Bloomsburg, 912 F. Supp. 790 (M.D. Pa 1995), aff’d 96 F.3d 1431 (3rd Cir. 1996), the landlord association filed a complaint contending that the Bloomsburg Ordinance violated the state and federal constitutional rights of its members. The association alleged: 1) violation of their rights under Article I, Section 10(1) [Article I, Section 10(1) provides that no state shall make any law “impairing the obligation of contracts”] and the Fourth, Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution under section 1983, 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and 2) violation of their rights under Article 8, Section 1[All taxes shall be uniform, upon the same class of subjects, within the territorial limits of the authority levying the tax, and shall be levied and collected under general laws] of the Pennsylvania Constitution.
In summary, the U.S. District Court held that: 1) the ordinance was not vague or overly broad; 2) the municipality may constitutionally regulate the number of unrelated individuals who may occupy a single family dwelling so long as as the ordinance was rationally related to a legitimate governmental interest, specifically, preventing disturbing conduct; 3) the ordinance was not a violation of the landlords’ substantive due process guarantees under the 5th and 14th amendment as it was rationally related to a legitimate governmental interest; 4) the ordinance was not a taking in violation of the 5th amendment as the ordinance substantially advances a legitimate state interests and does not deny an owner economically viable use of his land; and 5) that the licensing fee requirement of the ordinance was not a tax and not in violation of Pennsylvania’s constitutional prohibition against non-uniform taxes.
The U.S. District Court also rejected the argument that students were a protected class subject to protection from discrimination under the equal protection clause.
Other Pennsylvania cities and municipalities have similar rental ordinances, including State College, Reading, Kutztown, Allentown and Easton. In Easton, where Lafayette College is located, only two violations for disruptive behavior are required before a landlord is directed to evict the tenant.
Neighbors tired of the late noise and disruptive conduct appreciate the rental ordinances. At the same time, landlords who rent to students on a seasonal basis complain that the ordinances are punitive causing loss of revenues in mid lease.
The effectiveness of the ordinances is debatable. College students are not going to stop throwing parties. However, as long as the ordinances are rationally related to protecting the public and eliminating disruptive conduct, the ordinances will continue to be enforced in Pennsylvania.