* Corrections made, 6 p.m.
In the wake of new city regulations that will require rental properties to be inspected every two years, a group of McKeesport-area landlords is forming a trade association to make sure their voices are heard before future laws are passed.
Damian Trujillo, who moved to McKeesport from California seven years ago and now owns five properties in the city, says he and other landlords feel as if they're being singled out unfairly.
"We're investors --- not slumlords," Trujillo says. "We're worried about all of the abandoned houses in the city, too, because we're worried about our investments."
But Mayor Mike Cherepko says the new property regulations, which require rentals to be registered with the city and inspected regularly for fire and safety code violations, are necessary and aren't burdensome.
"Responsible landlords shouldn't be upset about anything, if they're keeping their buildings in good condition," Cherepko says. "The ones who don't take any responsibility are the ones who should be more concerned."
The changes to the city's Regulated Rental Unit Ordinance were approved by a 4-3 vote at city council's March 1 meeting. Council members Jim Barry, Tim Brown and Keith Soles * voted against the changes after a motion to table them for further discussion failed.
The city's rental ordinance will now require all rental properties to be registered at McKeesport City Hall at a cost of $50 per unit, per year.
According to the most recent figures available from the U.S. Census, in 2015, there were nearly 11,000 housing units in McKeesport; according to the 2010 Census, 46 percent of McKeesport's housing units were rentals, and about 8,500 of McKeesport's estimated 19,000 people lifted in apartments or rented houses.
In addition, the ordinance requires every rental apartment or house to be inspected every two years to ensure that smoke detectors are in place and that fire exits are available, and not blocked.
Inspection fees are set at $50 per unit for up to nine units at the same location, and then go down in five dollar increments for larger buildings of 10, 20, 30, 40 or 50 or more units.
The non-profit McKeesport Housing Authority, which operates Crawford Village, Harrison Village, Isbir Manor, Steelview Manor and McKeesport Towers, is exempt.
McKeesport firefighters have been trained to do the inspections, Cherepko says, and the city is creating a database of known rental properties with help from students at Duquesne University Law School.
McKeesport began considering tougher property maintenance codes for rental properties after a fire in the lower 10th Ward on Oct. 18, 2014 killed six people, including four children ages 2, 3, 6 and 7.
There were no working smoke detectors in the home. Ryan Williams, 27, formerly of McKeesport, is serving two consecutive life terms in prison after pleading guilty to setting the blaze.
"We don't want to experience another horrific tragedy like we did in the 10th Ward," Cherepko says. "At the end of the day, that's all we're trying to do --- make sure we don't lose any more lives."
The safety inspections are going to be very basic and limited, Cherepko says. "We're not doing a full home inspection," he says. "If there's a problem that's very visible or a building isn't structurally safe, then they'd have to call the building inspector."
Landlords will be given a reasonable amount of time to bring their buildings up to compliance, Cherepko says.
"No one is going to be put out into the street," he says. "If someone is living in deplorable conditions, we would try to relocate them."
Trujillo, who says he has talked to at least five other owners of rental properties in McKeesport, says they were not contacted by city officials before the ordinance was amended.
In his opinion, the ordinance isn't necessary. "There's already a requirement for occupancy permits," Trujillo says, "and there are already property maintenance codes."
Trujillo, who lives in the Seventh Ward, argues the city isn't doing enough to enforce the ordinances. "On the street where I live, I can show you houses that need to be condemned," he says. "The house next door to me, I've been asking the mayor for three years, 'knock it down.'"
Allegheny County records show that the house next to Trujillo's residence has been condemned; the structure was owned by a man who died in 2011 and has been abandoned.
McKeesport has two code enforcement officers to cover five square miles. "If something is visible on the outside of a home, we will get to the bottom of it," Cherepko says. Trying to get a property owner to remedy a problem is not always easy, especially with abandoned houses, "but if a house is being rented out, we will figure out," he says.
Trujillo says the new fees will cause rents to go up for many tenants who are already on low or fixed incomes.
"If the city needs more money, then raise my taxes, but tear this (junk) down," he says.
Cherepko says the $50 annual registration fee will cause rents to increase less than five dollars per month, and will provide piece of mind both to tenants and property owners.
"Property maintenance is the number one complaint to my office," Cherepko says. "I can tell you that this is what residents want --- not just homeowners but people who are renting these units as well."
Many renters are fearful of speaking up about a lack of fire exits or smoke detectors, he says. "People are asking us for help, but it's only reactive," Cherepko says. "They only get help if someone calls and complains. Now, we are going to be proactive."
If McKeesport would work with its landlords, Trujillo says, it might find them to be an important resource. Those landlords already hire local carpenters, plumbers and electricians to do work in their buildings and put money into the local economy, he says.
And Trujillo predicts Pittsburgh's rising property values are going to benefit McKeesport soon.
"I know four investors from California who right now are in McKeesport," he says. "These are people who did their research and know that as Pittsburgh grows, anything within 30 minutes' drive of downtown is going to be valuable."
Trujillo says he previously owned and managed properties in Las Vegas and Portland, Ore. "What city council did is inconvenient, and it also feels like a lot of local investors are being picked on," he says. "This has lit a fire under some of us. We may even consider getting someone to run for city council."
Cherepko says he would be willing to work with any property owner in the city who has a useful idea.
"I want our landlords to know that I want to work with them, but at the same time, they have to be reasonable," he says. "What a lot of landlords are doing right now is unacceptable."
Editor's Note: Any property owner interested in being part of Trujillo's landlord group is invited to call him at (412) 758-0292.
* Correction, Not Perfection: Two council members' names were spelled incorrectly in the first draft of this story. I realized after I posted the story. I apologize to Councilmen Barry and Brown for the error. - Jason
Originally published March 15, 2017.