Chapter 5. Prioritize Severely Blighted Properties That Threaten Health and Safety, and Use Fines, Permit Denials, or Criminal Charges to Encourage Repair and Maintenance

By prioritizing severely blighted properties that threaten health and safety, and by gaining the owners’ attention through significant fines, permit denials, or criminal charges, municipalities can encourage owners to repair and maintain blighted properties. The goal is to change the owners’ stance from “I’m going to ignore you” to “How much time do I have to get my property into compliance?”

Doors and Windows Ordinance: Fines for each missing door and window, and increasing fines over time

Philadelphia Windows and Doors Program Court Challenge (Rufo v. Bd. of Licenses and Inspections, No. 2735 C.D. 2015). 

  • In a decision issued on December 22, 2016, the Commonwealth Court upheld the trial court’s decision to strike down the City of Philadelphia’s “Windows and Doors” ordinance. The Court found that the requirement to have working doors and windows rather than boarding with plywood or other material was for aesthetic reasons rather than health and safety.

A doors and windows ordinance is a local law that requires each opening in a vacant property to be covered with a functional door or window. In Philadelphia, the ordinance applies to all blocks that are 80% occupied or more, or that are deemed blighted by the Commissioner of the Department of Licenses and Inspections (L&I). Philadelphia’s ordinance fines owners $300 per day for each missing window or door. Bright pink posters are posted on properties that are violating the ordinance. The tool is effective where properties have sufficient value that significant fines will not cause owners to walk away from their properties. In Philadelphia, the 80%-occupied figure has proved to be a good indicator for areas where properties have sufficient value to cause owners to be responsive. As stated above, the law also allows the city to expand enforcement to areas defined as blighted that have a slightly higher vacancy rates but are experiencing increased private market development.

What does it do?

Philadelphia has successfully used its doors and windows ordinance to bring vacant and blighted properties into code compliance. Under the ordinance, owners are informed that they will be fined $300 per day per opening until they repair their buildings and install functioning windows and doors. Fines mount quickly. For a single row-house with five openings that do not have functional windows or doors, the fine increases by $1,500 daily. To date, L&I has cited about 8,000 properties under the doors and windows ordinance. On receiving the notification letter, 50% of owners took some action: They installed the windows and doors, got permits to rehabilitate the properties, obtained a vacant-property license, or sold the properties. Building owners who fail to correct violations after two notices from L&I are taken to “blight court,” a form of equity court, which has dedicated court days to hear the cases. There, the court can impose fines—often a percentage of the total fines accumulated—and unpaid fines can be entered as liens against the properties.

The ordinance has also been successful in increasing the number of vacant-property registrations in the city. From 2010 to 2013, thanks to the enforcement of the ordinance, the number of properties registering for an annual vacant-property license, at a fee of $150 per year, grew from 300 to 3,500.

How do we pay for it?

Philadelphia’s doors and windows program pays for itself. In its first six months, the city cited 402 buildings for not having proper doors and windows and collected about $150,000 in fines, license fees, and delinquent taxes. By 2013, after the program had been in place for three years, the city had collected close to $1 million in licenses and fines. The city is careful to ensure that license fees do not exceed the total costs of the program. It has no similar requirement for fines and penalties.

What types of property are covered?

Properties that are on a block that is at least 80% occupied or have been defined as blighted.

What challenges will it solve?

Property investors often leave their properties blighted for years as they wait for market demand to increase. Meanwhile, the properties reduce property values and create eyesores that invite crime, vermin, and fire. Philadelphia has found that a court hearing and a threat of substantial fines is successful in causing owners, no matter where they are from, to appear in court and bring their properties up to code. In addition, the reintroduction of functional doors and windows makes the properties more attractive.

Where does it apply?

Any municipality may create a doors and windows policy under existing local codes.

How does it work? What is needed to use this law effectively?

  • Finding the Owners: The first step is finding the owners of vacant properties. Philadelphia assembled a team of tech-savvy interns who reviewed several databases—including deed information, property tax data, utilities billing data, corporation data, Internet searches, and a database used by the Internal Revenue Service on LexisNexis called Accurint—to find valid names and addresses for the owners of vacant properties, many of whom hide behind corporate names. The city uses this intelligence to contact an owner or the closest living heir, often sending letters to several children of a deceased owner in situations where the estate was never opened. The city prioritizes owners of multiple blighted properties. Each property is researched to ensure that proper notice is served.
  • Notifying the Owners: A notice of violation (NOV) is posted on the property and sent to the property owner at each address found, along with a strict letter that warns of the need to address the violation. (The letter cites the local windows and doors ordinance and Act 90 of 2010, titled the Neighborhood Blight Reclamation and Revitalization Act, available in the online appendix.) After the initial issuance of a doors and windows violation, the city gives owners 35 days to comply.(38) A second inspection is required by law, and a third inspection after 60 days is provided as city policy to determine compliance. The city also sends a letter notifying the owner that he or she is liable for thousands of dollars in fines, which increase each day. About 50% of the owners who receive the notice letter take action.
  • Dedicated Court Time: Owners who are in noncompliance at the time of the third inspection are taken to court. The city partnered with the equity court to create a blight court that exclusively adjudicates the cases one afternoon per month. In court, the judge will require proof of notice (a photo of the poster from the first inspection plus both NOV’s). The NOV’s must list exactly what is in violation (number of openings and their locations in the building), along with any citations issued. At court hearings, 60% of properties are represented by owners, including many from out of state. The same judge hears all the cases and is familiar with the law and the owners. Where possible, the city brings all properties owned by a single owner to the court on the same day. That practice makes it impossible for the owner to plead poverty relative to a specific property. In addition, it allows the court to suggest that owners sell some properties to raise the money to fix up blighted properties that they own.
  • Liens Attached to Property: For those who are served but do not show up in court, fines are entered as liens on the property. The liens can be leveraged to push the property to sheriff sale, although that has not yet been put into practice. Similarly, the city is prepared to attach the assets of unresponsive owners under Act 90 but has not yet done so.

What policies and practices will increase our chances of successfully using this tool?

The tool is effective only if municipalities can locate the owners of vacant properties and provide notices of violation. It is therefore essential to put in the detective work to identify owners and their whereabouts so that effective notice can be provided.

A municipality can get started even if it lacks a full inventory of vacant properties. Philadelphia L&I began by researching and sending its inspectors to inspect any property that their records indicated might be vacant as an addition to the staff’s normal workload. Over time, they have inspected close to 13,000 properties. While out in the field, inspectors also check the area for other vacant properties.

Philadelphia tracks data extensively to determine which tools and approaches are effective against different types of properties, owners, and violations. The city has found that the single most important indicator of whether an owner will be responsive is whether the owner has paid taxes in the past three years. Owners who have paid their taxes recently and consistently are more likely to repair their homes than owners who live only blocks from the property or owners who own multiple properties in the same neighborhood.

The city recently amended the doors and windows ordinance to include mixed-use properties where a storefront or first-floor retail space is occupied but above the store are vacant housing units that are boarded up or unsealed.

What legal documents will we need?

  • Ordinance establishing the law
  • Letter notifying the owner of violations
  • Poster to place on the property in clear sight that notes the violations
  • Deed and mortgage records
  • Tax records
  • Database to store owner information and track the three inspections completed during the compliance period, along with court activities
  • Complaint to the court
  • Individuals to do the research

Samples of most of Philadelphia’s documents are available in the online appendix.

Who is using the tool now?

Philadelphia launched its initiative in October 2011. The city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections identified 25,000 structures that it believed to be vacant, used interns to find valid names and addresses for the owners, fined owners $300 per day per opening without a functional door or window, and took owners to blight court. The city collected almost $1.1 million in license and permit fees. The city achieved compliance rates of 53% for targeted properties through citations and of 62% for properties taken to blight court. A 2014 study by the Reinvestment Fund found that properties that complied with L&I citations created $74 million in sales value for surrounding properties. The created value increased the city’s transfer tax revenue by $2.34 million.

How can we combine this with other strategies?

The goal is for all owners to sign agreements that they will install windows and doors, become tax compliant, and obtain vacant-property licenses. The law can be used in tandem with Act 90 powers to attach assets and ensure the repayment of fines and penalties.

Permit Denial: Denying permits to owners of tax-delinquent properties or properties that have judgments for serious code violations

Permit denial under Act 90 of 2010, titled the Neighborhood Blight Reclamation and Revitalization Act(39), allows municipalities to deny certain permits and licenses to property owners who have significant tax delinquencies or a judgment of serious code violations by a magistrate or judge anywhere in the Commonwealth. The legislature passed the law in part to overturn a court ruling holding the municipality of Jeannette in Westmoreland County liable for damages for denying occupancy permits to a tax-delinquent owner.

What does it do?

The act authorizes municipalities to deny municipal permits to any property owner who has an unappealable delinquent real estate tax or municipal claim or a “serious code violation” anywhere in the Commonwealth. The municipality may withhold the permit until the property owner provides confirmation that he or she has paid taxes or remedied the code violations. For municipalities to deny the permit on the grounds of a “serious violation,” the owner must have failed to take “substantial steps” to correct the violation within six months after receiving notice of the imposition of a fine, penalty, or judgment by the court.

How do we pay for it?

The denial of a permit should not impose any added costs on a municipality. Denials are issued by a zoning hearing board or other body with jurisdiction to render decisions under the Pennsylvania Municipalities Planning Code.

What types of property are covered?

A permit denial can be imposed on owners of residential, commercial, or industrial properties. The tax delinquency or code violations that cause a denial may be for a property located outside the municipality denying the permit.

What challenges will it solve?

Permit denial gives negligent property owners who have multiple properties an incentive to pay their taxes and maintain their properties if they wish to expand their property holdings in Pennsylvania. It is targeted at owners who invest in some of their properties, such as private homes, and allow others to deteriorate. Just as jurisdictions may share information to identify and stop criminals who perpetrate the same crimes in multiple jurisdictions, this tool allows municipalities to share information and force seriously negligent property owners to fix their existing properties before they can invest in additional properties.

Where does it apply?

Any municipality may adopt a permit denial law.

How does it work? What is needed to use this law effectively?

A municipality may refuse to grant permits for real property—including, but not limited to, building permits, occupancy permits, and exceptions to zoning ordinances. To issue a permit denial, the municipality must put the following in writing: street address, municipality and county in which the property is located, and the court and docket number for each parcel cited as a basis for the denial. The denial must also state that the applicant may request a letter of compliance from the appropriate state agency, municipality, or school district, to demonstrate that the delinquency or violation has been resolved. If the state, municipality, or other entity does not issue a letter of compliance within 45 days of the request, the property in question is deemed to be in compliance. All municipal permit denials may remain in effect until a letter of compliance is provided or an agreement on a remediation plan to resolve the issue is reached within 90 days.

What policies and practices will increase our chances of successfully using this tool?

To its local code, a municipality should add language that explicitly grants a privilege to deny municipal permits pursuant to Act 90. Also, the municipality should prepare a written policy that includes clear procedures for permit denial.

To identify property owners who have judgments of code violations, municipalities should use the search function of the magisterial district court’s docket sheets. The online database at http://ujsportal.pacourts.us/DocketSheets.aspx can be searched by name or parcel ID, and it includes properties and their owners for which there is a judgment by a magistrate or court that the property has serious code violations.

Finally, a municipality may require all applicants for permits to complete a disclosure form in which owners affirm that they have no tax delinquencies or serious code violations or are asked to list all properties they own in the Commonwealth. An owner who fails to complete the form honestly and accurately will be committing a misdemeanor of the third degree and will be required to pay a fine of at least $1,000.(40)

 What legal documents will we need?

A municipality that seeks to use permit denial should enact an ordinance that explicitly gives the municipality the right to deny permits under Act 90 and provides a compliance response form. In addition, a municipality should draft a written policy that sets out procedures for the—

  • Steps to be taken before permit denial
  • Review and authentication of compliance letters submitted by the applicant
  • Issuance of permit denials
  • Response to compliance requests within the mandated 45-day period.

A municipality may also create a disclosure form in which applicants affirm that they have no tax delinquencies, or serious violations of state law or codes, on properties they own in Pennsylvania, or applicants must list all properties owned in Pennsylvania. Note that the use of permit denial needs cooperation between municipalities.

Who is using the tool now?

The city of Johnstown was one of the first Pennsylvania municipalities to implement the provisions of Act 90. Johnstown did not pass a local ordinance; rather, it enforces Act 90 directly. Johnstown has found that the threat of permit denial has motivated owners to correct their delinquencies or serious code violations so that they can obtain permits.

How can we combine this with other strategies?

Permit denial may be used with two other tools detailed in this manual: asset attachment and placing a judgment lien on another property that has the same owner. Where an owner of multiple properties invests in some structures and allows others to deteriorate, the municipality can attach the owner’s personal assets (such as wages) to recover costs associated with the blighted properties or can place a lien for past code violation fees and fines on another of the owner’s properties in the Commonwealth.

Asset Attachment: Attaching owners’ other assets to pay to demolish or improve properties

Asset attachment is the legal process for seizing real or personal property to satisfy a court judgment. Act 90 of 2010, titled the Neighborhood Blight Reclamation and Revitalization Act, gives municipalities the power to initiate an action against the owner of a blighted property and place a lien on the owner’s assets—including the property cited, the owner’s other real property, wages and bank accounts—if the owner fails to take substantial steps to correct a “serious violation” within six months of a final court order.(41) The law went into effect in April 2011.

What does it do?

Asset attachment under Act 90 allows a municipality to place a lien against an owner’s real property and personal assets as well as against the property in question. By allowing jurisdictions to attach other personal and real estate assets of the property owner, rather than limiting their efforts to obtain value from the blighted property itself, the law provides the opportunity to recoup the costs of code enforcement, blight remediation, and demolition from owners who have sufficient assets to cover the costs. In addition, the filing of an action to attach an owner’s personal home, wages, or other assets may motivate a property owner to appear in court to defend his or her valued assets.

How do we pay for it?

Asset attachment pays for itself. If it is successful, the municipality will recover costs by placing a lien on the owner’s personal and other real estate assets. Assets that can be attached include the property owner’s bank accounts, other real property, and a portion of the property owner’s salary beyond what is exempt for personal and family support.

What types of property are covered?

Asset attachment in Act 90 covers properties that meet the following criteria:

  • Owner can be identified
  • Owner is liable for “serious violations”
  • Property has significant fines and penalties (for code enforcement) that remain unpaid, and the owner has not corrected the violations after six months. The owner should have sufficient assets to pay fines and penalties, and the court must be willing to issue a court order of attachment.

What challenges will it solve?

Some owners of vacant and blighted properties have the money to fix their properties, but choose to defy court orders. Asset attachment compensates municipalities by forcing those owners to use their other assets to maintain their deteriorated buildings. Also, a writ of attachment may focus property owners’ attention and cause them to appear in court to defend their assets.

Where does it apply?

Any municipality may implement Act 90 asset attachment.

How does it work? What is needed to use this law effectively?

The process of attachment is not complicated. A code official must cite a property for substantial violations. In six months, the code official must re-inspect the property, If the official sees that the owner has failed to remediate the violations, the municipality files an action in common pleas court against the owner. If the court issues a judgment against the owner and the owner fails to satisfy the judgment, the municipality can submit a writ of attachment to collect the judgment. Under Act 90, the court may issue a levy of attachment directing the sheriff or other law enforcement officer to serve a copy of the order on the defendant and to seize property equal in value to the sum specified in the writ.

The U.S. Supreme Court has held that property owners have a constitutional right to a notice and a hearing before their assets are attached.(42) The notice and hearing requirements depend on the types of assets being attached or garnished (such as real estate, personal property, wages, or bank accounts). Municipalities should consult with their solicitors to ensure that they are providing adequate notice. In addition, the defendant has a right to challenge the seizure. The owner must post a bond for the release of the property, in effect substituting the bond for the property in the court's custody. The order of attachment remains effective for a limited period.

Asset attachment is most effective when an owner has multiple blighted properties but also has real estate in Pennsylvania and wages sufficient to cover penalties and costs incurred in remediating the blighted properties. Where an owner is an association or trust, no lien can be placed on the individual assets of the general partners or trustees, limited partners, shareholders, members, or beneficiaries of the association or trust.

What policies and practices will increase our chances of successfully using this tool?

  • Identifying the owners of multiple blighted properties
  • Determining whether the owners have the money to cover costs that the government has incurred to remediate the properties
  • Determining whether the owners have other properties in Pennsylvania that have value

Attachment is difficult when a person owns property in Pennsylvania but lives in another state. Even if a court in another state was willing to enforce a judgment against the individual and place a lien or attachment on his or her property, the judgment would have lesser priority than other liens or mortgages previously filed on the property. In addition, real property would be subject to Pennsylvania’s foreclosure laws.(43)

A municipality should provide extensive proof to the court that the owner is responsible for the property but after repeated violation notices and a court judgment has allowed the property to deteriorate and become a nuisance. A database noting each violation and notification is helpful.

Act 90 § 6112 states that a lien may be placed against the assets of an owner of real property that is in “serious violation” of a code or is regarded as a public nuisance after a judgment, decree, or order is entered by a court of competent jurisdiction against the owner of the property. Some experts have voiced concern that the “serious violation” definition in Act 90 is vague and may be challenged in court. It is essential that the municipality submit detailed documentation of the nature of a violation and why it should be considered serious.

What legal documents will we need?

Municipalities should adopt ordinances allowing for asset attachment and should develop a template for a writ of attachment.

Who is using the tool now?

Philadelphia found that the threat of asset attachment increased compliance. To date, it appears that no municipality has used this tool.

How can we combine this with other strategies?

Asset attachment can be used in concert with nuisance laws and code enforcement to force the owners of nuisance properties to pay under a court judgment. Publicizing the successful attachment of an owner’s assets will help ensure that other owners come forward to pay outstanding penalties. A municipality may also want to consider placing a lien on other properties owned by the owner of a property that has serious code violations as defined in Act 90.

Hall of Shame: Bringing public pressure to bear on owners of the most blighted properties

The hall of shame is a program that brings public pressure to bear on property owners who refuse to improve substandard conditions. It posts names, addresses, and photographs of blighted properties online and in the media. A municipality may choose to place a newspaper advertisement featuring hall of shame property owners. The goal is to shame negligent property owners who have rampant code violations into bringing their blighted properties up to code and to motivate other owners to fix up their properties and avoid being added to the hall.

What does it do?

The hall of shame is a low-cost tool designed to shame owners into bringing their properties up to code. Posting an owner’s name, along with the address and photos of the derelict property, may sometimes spur action to improve the property. And it can motivate other property owners to take action so that they will not be publicly shamed.(44)

How do we pay for it?

The cost of creating and implementing a hall of shame is minimal. The owner’s name and the property’s address are added to the municipal Web site, posted on the property, and featured in the news media.

What types of property are covered?

It is up to the municipality to determine which properties are covered. For instance, Allentown decided to include only investor-owned rental properties whose owners live out of state, do not occupy the properties, and have knowledge of repeated violations but have repeatedly refused to fix up the properties.

What challenges will it solve?

Used in combination with other tools, the hall of shame can motivate property owners to sell or fix up their properties.

Where does it apply?

Any municipality may create a hall of shame.

How does it work? What is needed to use this law effectively?

A municipality should first establish rules for eligibility into the hall of shame. For example, Allentown nominates only owners of vacant rental properties that have serious code violations. The municipality then creates a nominating process, typically a committee that will evaluate problem properties and recommend one or two for inclusion in the hall of shame. In Allentown, the Landlord Hall of Shame Committee includes the following members: director of building standards and safety, housing rehab supervisor, housing supervisor, construction code superintendent, a representative from zoning, and a representative from recycling.

The jurisdiction should also establish criteria for inclusion in the hall of shame. Factors that Allentown considers include—

  • Delinquent fees (water and sewer, rental, taxes, business license, business privilege tax)
  • Property declared a nuisance according to the property rehabilitation and maintenance code
  • Registration or license revocation or warnings
  • Neighbor “testimonials”
  • Health issues (solid waste, animals, and so on)
  • Building issues (no permits, no plans)
  • Police issues
  • Fire issues

Once selected, the property owners are featured on the government Web site, in news stories, and on posters attached to their rundown buildings. When possible, signs and stories contain the owners’ contact information. Pottsville City Council recently presented a slide show of its 10 most blighted properties at a monthly council meeting. So far, 4 owners who have properties in the top 10 have contacted the city to discuss their options.(45) Since beginning its program in 2008, Allentown has focused on posting only the worst of the worst properties so that it does not send a message to potential residents or investors that the city has have a large catalog of blighted properties. Allentown’s hall of shame has never faced a legal challenge.(46)

What policies and practices will increase our chances of successfully using this tool?

The hall of shame should be viewed as just another step in a process designed to make owners accountable for the condition of their properties, rather than as a program that can achieve results on its own.

Allentown has found that the hall of shame’s most positive contribution is to motivate owners who may be eligible for induction into the hall of shame, rather than those already inducted, to sell or fix up their properties and avoid being publicly shamed.

What legal documents will we need?

No legal documents are needed.

Who is using the tool now?

Allentown began its Landlord Hall of Shame in October 2008. The city focuses primarily on landlords who live outside the city and have significant assets, including a relatively high value home, yet still choose not to improve the conditions of their Allentown properties. If an owner does not take action to remediate code violations, the property will be added to a pre-blight certification list and taken through the Blighted Property Review Committee condemnation process.

How can we combine this with other strategies?

Allentown uses the hall of shame in concert with the blight determination process of its Blighted Property Review Board. Owners are notified that they will be featured in the hall of shame and that their properties are being considered for condemnation within a month of their inclusion in the hall.(47)

Criminal Misdemeanor Sanctions for Multiple Code Violations: Prosecute owners who repeatedly violate building, property maintenance, or housing codes

Pennsylvania law allows local governments to impose misdemeanor penalties on owners who repeatedly violate building, property maintenance, or housing codes. The goal of criminalizing repeated and severe code violations is to wield a penalty sufficient to give owners of vacant and blighted properties an incentive to bring their properties up to code. Two key laws that impose misdemeanor sanctions are the Municipal Housing Code Avoidance Act and, for third-class cities only, the Third Class Cities Escalated Code Citations and Penalties Act. Other municipalities enforce criminal nuisance laws.

What does it do?

Pennsylvania law authorizes criminal penalties that include imprisonment for serious and repeated housing code violations. The goal of code enforcement is compliance, not punishment. Yet some chronic violators will not repair or improve blighted properties without the threat of clear, consistent, and severe penalties. Two key laws criminalize flagrant and repeated code violations. The Crime of Municipal Housing Code Avoidance(48) makes it a misdemeanor for a property owner to be convicted four times for the same building, housing, or property maintenance code violation where the owner has made no reasonable attempt to address the violation. Along with fines, jail time may be imposed.

The Third Class Cities Escalated Code Citations and Penalties Act(49), which applies only to third-class cities, allows code officials to issue escalating fines every five days. After the third violation, imprisonment for up to 90 days is an available penalty. Fines are between $500 and $1,000 for the first two offenses and $1,000 to $10,000 for the third and subsequent offenses. Under either law, if a third-class city elects to prosecute under either act, the prosecution must be brought by an assistant district attorney.

How do we pay for it?

Repeated fines may be imposed against chronic violators to cover costs. Unlike license fees, fines and penalties may exceed the costs to administer the program.

What types of property are covered?

The Municipal Housing Code Avoidance Act applies to all properties subject to building, housing, or property maintenance codes. The Third Class Cities Escalated Code Citations and Penalties Act applies to all properties subject to building, housing, property maintenance, fire prevention, electrical, or plumbing codes.

What challenges will it solve?

Targeting chronic violators and bringing maximum sanctions to bear—for example, imprisonment and the levy of fines for each violation multiplied for every five days that a violation remains—establishes a context that can bring chronic violators to the table to discuss making their properties code compliant.

Where does it apply?

Any municipality may prosecute under the Municipal Housing Code Avoidance Act. Only third-class cities may use the Third-Class Cities Escalated Code Citations and Penalties Act.

How does it work? What is needed to use this law effectively?

After the requisite number of code violation convictions have occurred under either law, the code official requests prosecution by the assistant district attorney (ADA). The ADA considers the facts and decides whether to prosecute. The code official conducts periodic inspections to support the prosecution.

Under the Municipal Housing Code Avoidance Act, a criminal prosecution may be initiated, after at least four convictions, against the same owner for the same code violation that threatens health, safety, or property where the owner has made no reasonable attempt to abate the violation. Incarceration may be imposed only after conviction and willful failure to pay fines. A second-degree misdemeanor may be charged when a code violation remains after four summary convictions. A first-degree misdemeanor may be charged for five or more summary convictions. Code officials file summary charges as part of routine code enforcement.

Under the Third Class Cities Escalated Code Citations and Penalties Act, if a code violation poses a threat to public health, safety, or property, the code enforcement official may issue a citation with monetary fines every five days. Fines of $500 to $1,000 may be imposed for the first two offenses. For the third and subsequent offenses, fines of $1,000 to $10,000, imprisonment of up to 90 days, or both fines and imprisonment may be imposed.

What policies and practices will increase our chances of successfully using this tool?

Partnerships between code enforcement agencies (the housing, health, zoning, and building inspection staff found in most municipalities) and law enforcement (police and prosecutors) are crucial for the successful use of these tools. When the agencies and law enforcement work together, a municipality increases its ability to clean up and permanently transform poorly maintained and dangerous properties. Some municipalities may formalize the relationship by establishing an interagency task force for the case management of designated problem properties. Others may seek to pique the interest of the assistant district attorney by prioritizing properties that are hotspots for criminal activity and neighborhood blight.

Effective monitoring and enforcement demands a database with the capacity to track violations, compile property histories, and move violators through an enforcement pipeline, using the statutory authority to levy progressive sanctions that are clear, consistent, swift, and certain. Successful prosecutions should be widely publicized in hopes that a credible threat of prosecution will bring other chronic violators into code compliance.

What legal documents will we need?

Criminal sanctions typically require the involvement of an assistant district attorney or the police, who will have all necessary legal documents.

Who is using the tool now?

The Borough of Pottstown recently took an owner to court on a misdemeanor charge of disorderly conduct for storing more than 50 tires at a property. In June 2012, a Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas judge sentenced the owner to six months’ probation for creating a hazardous or physically offensive condition.(50)

The City of Harrisburg has repeatedly charged property owners of vacant buildings in imminent danger of collapse with misdemeanor public nuisance after beginning condemnation proceedings. David Patton, Harrisburg’s deputy director for codes, backs up the charge by sharing photos and records of repeated notifications and inspections with police. Harrisburg’s goal is to charge the owner with a misdemeanor and enter the misdemeanor information into the National Crime Information Center database so that if the owner is stopped for a traffic violation or for some other reason, the police can arrest the owner on the misdemeanor charge. Four out of five times, the strategy has worked and the owner has paid to repair or demolish the property. Harrisburg has not used the Municipal Housing Code Avoidance Act, because it requires multiple court judgments, which are very difficult to secure. In fact, no municipality that we know of is using these two laws.(51)

How can we combine this with other strategies?

Criminal sanctions are a last alternative. In addition to prosecution, a municipality may consider asset attachment, the demolition of dangerous structures, or assigning a conservator to bring the property back up to code.

Extradition of Out-of-State Property Owners: Asking Pennsylvania’s governor to extradite property owners living in other states so that they can be brought for criminal prosecution

Extradition is the process of transferring a person arrested in one state for a warrant issued by another state. The Neighborhood Blight Reclamation and Revitalization Act, Act 90, allows Pennsylvania municipalities to extradite property owners living in other states to face criminal prosecution for criminal property code violations through a costly, difficult process. Under the extradition process, the governor of Pennsylvania must make an official written request for criminal extradition to the governor of the other state. Extradition is rarely used to prosecute a “fugitive from justice” for misdemeanor charges, because the process is resource intensive and costly. To our knowledge, extradition has not been used to prosecute an owner for property code violations.

What does it do?

Municipalities may hold out-of-state property owners liable for code violations that rise to the level of criminal conduct. To extradite, a municipality must provide the owner with a notice of violations, charge the owner with a crime or offense under 18 Pa.C.S., and obtain the governor’s signature to require the jurisdiction to detain the owner and physically send him or her to court in Pennsylvania.

How do we pay for it?

The municipality requesting extradition is responsible for costs incurred by Pennsylvania and the other state in extraditing the owner. Even if the owner is found guilty of criminal code violations, the court will not necessarily require the owner to reimburse the municipality for the extradition costs incurred. The municipality must therefore have a plan to pay the costs out of its general budget or from other resources.

What types of property are covered?

Covered properties are those whose owner can be identified and is liable for significant code enforcement fines and penalties. To initiate the extradition, the governor of Pennsylvania must make a written request to the other state’s governor to arrest and send the property owner back to Pennsylvania for criminal prosecution.

What challenges will it solve?

The goal is to hold out-of-state owners accountable for their seriously blighted Pennsylvania properties. Unfortunately, given the need for the governor to write a personal written request to each relevant state’s governor for each owner facing criminal misdemeanor charges, it will rarely be used.

Where does it apply?

Any Pennsylvania municipality may ask the governor to extradite an owner charged with a crime.

How does it work? What is needed to use this law effectively?

For an out-of-state property owner to be subject to extradition, the owner must be charged with a crime and a warrant must be issued for arrest. Pennsylvania’s governor must then make a written request to the other state’s governor to arrest and send the property owner back to Pennsylvania for criminal prosecution. The United States Supreme Court has ruled that before extradition may be granted, the requesting state must fulfill four requirements: It must show that the person to be extradited (1) has been charged with a crime; (2) is a fugitive from the requesting state; (3) was present in the requesting state at the time the crime was alleged to have occurred; and (4) is named in the charging documents from the requesting state. The owner can fight extradition to Pennsylvania by contesting the validity of the charge and can petition the court for the issuance of a writ of habeas corpus. A habeas corpus petition requires Pennsylvania to show that it has sufficient evidence to restrain the accused; otherwise, the accused must be released.

What policies and practices will increase our chances of successfully using this tool?

The governor of Pennsylvania will be unlikely to request extradition unless there is an extensive record of criminal violations in a single jurisdiction or multiple Pennsylvania jurisdictions. Local governments must be able to make a strong case for why they are prosecuting the owner under Pennsylvania criminal law and why extradition is necessary.

What legal documents will we need?

An extensive number of documents are required for extradition, including —

  • Governor’s warrant
  • Fugitive affidavit
  • Warrant for arrest of the fugitive

The county’s assistant district attorney will have access to the documents.

Who is using the tool now?

We are unaware of any jurisdiction that has successfully extradited a property owner for property-related code violations.

How can we combine this with other strategies?

Although it is difficult to hold long-term absentee owners accountable, a municipality can use vacant-property registration laws to require a nonresident owner to appoint someone as the owner’s “duly authorized agent” (also known as a “local agent” or “responsible agent”).  The municipality can then treat the agent the same as the owner in terms of legal responsibility. The City of Allentown has taken legal action against agents representing absentee owners of properties that have accumulated code violations. Magistrates have supported the city’s actions by imposing fines on the agents as needed to compel the correction of code violations.(52)


38. Thirty-five days is the required statutory waiting period to give the owner a chance to comply.

39. Chapter 61, titled “Neighborhood Blight Reclamation and Revitalization,” was passed into law on October 27, 2010, P.L.875, No. 90, . § 6131. Municipal permit denial. The act took effect on April 25, 2011.

40. 18 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 4904, Unsworn falsification to authorities.

41. 53 Pa.S.C. 6111, 6112. See also City of Philadelphia Code, Administrative Code, Section A-503; City of Pittsburgh, Codified Ordinances, § 1001.10(b); Third Class Cities Code, 53 P.S. § 39133; First Class Township Code, 53 P.S. § 56519; Second Class Township Code, 53 P.S. § 66517; and Boroughs Code, 53 P.S. § 46202(24).

42. Connecticut v. Doehr, 501 U.S. 1 (1991); Sniadach v. Family Finance Corp. of Bay View, 395 U.S. 337, 342 (1969).

43. For more information, see Rute Pinho, “Blight Liens,” OLR Research Report (July 3, 2012), http://www.cga.ct.gov/2012/rpt/2012-R-0250.htm.

44. Interview with Dave Paulus, director of the Allentown Bureau of Building Standards and Safety.

45.  J. Pytak, “Pottsville Blight List to Highlight Future Council Meetings,” Pottsville Republican (July 9, 2013).  http://republicanherald.com/news/pottsville-blight-list-to-highlight-future-council-meetings-1.1517454.

46. Interview with Dave Paulus, director of the Allentown Bureau of Building Standards and Safety August 16, 2013.

47. Ibid.

48. 18 P.S. § 7510; Act 70 of 1998.

49. Act 135 of 1998; 53 P.S. § 39131.1.

50. Carl Hessler, “Former Pottstown Man Faces Probation for Quality of Life Offense,” The Times Herald (June 29, 2012), http://www.timesherald.com/article/20120629/NEWS01/120629422/former-pottstown-man-faces-probation-for-quality-of-life-offense.

51. Interview with David Patton, Harrisburg’s deputy director for codes, November 7, 2013.

52. Allentown Progress Report, Fels Institute of Government (April 2009), https://www.fels.upenn.edu/sites/www.fels.upenn.edu/files/Allentown_Progress_Report_0.pdf.