Statute Makes Landlords Liable For Nuisance Tenants And Guests Collingswood Sees The Ordinance As A Tool Against Noise And Other Disturbances. Landlords Say It's Too Broad.

Posted: March 21, 1993

COLLINGSWOOD — Landlords in Collingswood now face fines if their tenants - or even the tenants' visitors or pets - create a nuisance.

Under an ordinance unanimously adopted Monday by the Borough Commission, landlords can be held responsible "for any activities, actions, events and conduct of any person and/or animal" on the rental property.

The purpose of the new law is to bring nuisances caused by tenants under control, according to Borough Administrator Jean DeGennaro.

"We have a lot of absentee landlords who are not taking care of their properties or the problems there. This gives us the teeth and leverage to go after the property owners," she said.

About 40 percent of the 5,000 housing units in the borough are rental properties, Mayor Michael G. Brennan said. They include duplexes, apartment buildings and high-rise apartment towers.

While many landlords take care of their properties, several absentee landlords don't, Brennan said. "The absentee landlords don't seem to care, and we want to get their attention with this ordinance," he said.

Another aim of the law is to make landlords more cautious in choosing their tenants, Brennan said. "Since the landlords are making the profits on the rent, they should pay more attention to the people to whom they rent," he said.

The law is modeled on one adopted by neighboring Oaklyn Borough on Oct. 13. The Oaklyn council passed the law as a way to crack down on noise, fights and disturbances at apartment buildings, particularly one on White Horse Pike that was the scene of many arrests.

The law carries a fine of up to $500 and a maximum of 30 days in jail for failing to keep "peace and good order" at the rental units. But borough officials said the landlords would be given a warning before being summoned to court.

Brennan acknowledged that the ordinance might have to be modified to pass constitutional muster. But he said it would be enforced only when other methods failed to solve a nuisance.

A handful of Collingswood landlords at the commission meeting Monday opposed the law, saying it could hurt them.

Thomas Oren 3d, a Collingswood lawyer whose family rents out a duplex on Haddon Avenue, said in an interview last week that the law was too broad and unreasonable.

"It could be unfair because it's broad enough that I could be made responsible for things that I can't control," said Oren, who also represents some landlords in the borough.

"I could be made responsible for the actions of tenants and their invitees, and if they're disorderly I could be subject to court sanctions," he said.

Oren said the law also holds landlords to a higher standard than homeowners. Homeowners are not liable for disorderly guests, he said.

State laws make it difficult to evict tenants, even when they are causing problems, Oren said. As a result, he said, the landlord is caught between state laws that might make it tough to evict tenants and local laws that penalize the landlord for not controlling them.

"My concern is that the (local) law is so broad it could be subject to abuse by neighbors. There are people who don't like rental properties. But as a landlord, how much can I control what goes on?" he asked.

Oren agreed that screening tenants is important. But he said a landlord can only interview a prospective tenant, call the tenant's previous landlord for a reference and do a credit check. He said he cannot do a criminal background check and cannot always determine the integrity of the person.

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