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Borough denies housing accusations; at council meeting, PSU student says officials violate rights

Posted 3/13/19

Middletown borough officials denied Friday what it calls “broad and unsubstantiated claims” made by a Penn State Harrisburg student during the March 5 council meeting — that borough …

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Borough denies housing accusations; at council meeting, PSU student says officials violate rights

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Middletown borough officials denied Friday what it calls “broad and unsubstantiated claims” made by a Penn State Harrisburg student during the March 5 council meeting — that borough codes officials are violating the rights of students who rent to live in houses in the town.

Riley Cagle, who is senate leader of the Penn State Harrisburg Student Government Association, said during the meeting that the borough is targeting students living in the town to see if they are violating a Middletown zoning provision that forbids more than two unrelated people from living in the same single-family dwelling.

“I have heard multiple stories of students being harassed by a codes enforcement officer, specifically asking them if they are students when they live there, up on their fire escapes, knocking on their doors, in trying to get a look into the house,” Cagle told Middletown Borough Council. “The code enforcement officer knocks on their door, he asks who is living there, how many people are living there and he consistently asks if they are a student. … This is a gross overreach of their Fourth Amendment rights.”

Cagle told council he would not reveal the names of students who have made these complaints to him, in order to protect their identities.

Borough response

The Press & Journal on Thursday morning had reached out for comment to Middletown Zoning & Codes Officer Al Geosits, who was not at the council meeting.

Geosits did not respond to the email requesting comment. However, on Friday morning, a response to Cagle’s comments was posted on the borough website, www.middletownborough.com.

Without identifying Cagle by name, the borough in its statement said: “The student speaker did not provide any specific facts about the alleged incidents with the Codes Department, such as the date on or location at which the supposed incidents occurred.”

“Given the complete absence of any meaningful factual information about the alleged incidents, and the lack of any statements made by individuals involved or with firsthand knowledge of the alleged incidents, the borough is not in a position to respond in any detail to the claims made during public comment on March 5th,” the borough said.

The statement goes on to say that, before Cagle’s comments, the borough had not received any “formal complaints” from Penn State students about the “alleged incidents,” or any formal complaints “about any allegedly unlawful activities by the Codes Department.” Nor had the borough before the meeting been informed “of any alleged deviations from legally complaint code administration and enforcement procedures by its Codes Department.”

The borough also says in the statement that borough policy is that the codes department “will not enter any dwelling unit or other constitutionally protected private area to perform an inspection without proper legal consent or an administrative warrant, and that policy is followed by the department.”

The statement says that current borough zoning “fully provides” for student housing and is “consistent with federal and state laws.”

The statement also notes that council “made clear” following Cagle’s comments that his claims “would be reviewed and investigated.” During the meeting and after Cagle’s comments, Council President Angela Lloyd said that “We will look into the issue with codes.”

Standing by comments

Cagle in a telephone interview with the Press & Journal Friday responding to the borough statement said that he stands by his comments regarding Penn State Harrisburg students living in town being targeted by codes officials.

None of these students have complained to the borough because “they are scared” and concerned that if it becomes known that they are renting a house in town in violation of the ban, that they risk being evicted by the borough “and have no place to live,” Cagle said.

Cagle, who lives on North Progress Avenue, said the statement was accurate in saying that he does not live in the borough.

“They are trying to paint me as this person who knows nothing about Middletown,” yet Cagle said his mother graduated from Middletown Area High School, and his grandmother lived in the town for 35 years.

“I partially grew up in that apartment” where his grandmother lived in Middletown, Cagle said.

The borough statement also does not refer to Cagle and another Penn State Harrisburg student, Kenny Gatten III, both who serve as official liaisons between the borough’s Human Relations Commission — a body appointed by council — and the Penn State Harrisburg student body.

Gatten, who stood next to Cagle as Cagle was making his remarks during the March 5 council meeting, is vice president of the Penn State Harrisburg SGA and has been working with the commission since early 2018, according to Council Vice President Mike Woodworth who also chairs the commission.

Cagle has been active with the commission since late 2018, Woodworth had told the Press & Journal before the March 5 council meeting.

Woodworth also confirmed that Cagle and Gatten have both brought up to the commission their concerns over the ban against two or more unrelated people living in a house in the borough, “as a matter of importance to them.”

Asks for ordinance to be repealed

Cagle — who had prefaced his remarks to council on March 5 by saying he was not speaking officially for Penn State Harrisburg but was representing students — had said in his comments that “we want this ordinance repealed,” referring to the ban. “We want this ordinance to not be enforced. We want to be a part of this community. That’s all I’m asking is for you guys to take some sort of action on this ordinance.”

Cagle before the March 5 meeting told the Press & Journal he was working to put together a meeting on campus to be held March 14, during which other students and landlords who own property in Middletown would both express their concerns over the ban against two or more unrelated people living in the same house.

From out of that meeting, Cagle, who is a public policy major, said he is planning to put together a “policy brief” that he would present to the borough and council, setting out the case for getting rid of the ban, and including possible solutions for problems that are perceived to be linked to more students living in Middletown, such as a lack of parking in residential areas.

Cagle said he is still sticking with that plan, despite the public blow-up over his comments at the meeting.

“I think that the borough feels they are under attack,” Cagle told the Press & Journal on Friday. “I am not attacking the borough personally, I am attacking policy. I want to keep it professional. I want them (the borough) to look at it, and say there are some good ideas on this (and) maybe we should change it.”

Cagle said the ban prevents Penn State Harrisburg students from living together in one house and splitting up the rent to make it more affordable.

He further believes that lifting the ban would create more competition for rental housing to Penn State Harrisburg students than currently exists, which could lead to lower rental housing costs.

Ultimately, the issue for him also comes down to an infringement of freedom.

The ban, coupled with what Cagle characterizes as overly restrictive regulations in borough zoning pertaining to student housing, amounts to the borough saying, “You can live in these areas, but you can’t live in these areas,” Cagle said. “We’re Americans. We can live wherever we want.”

Cagle acknowledged that at present, the only landlord who has directly expressed concerns to him about the ban is Diana McGlone, the former borough councilor who as a landlord in 2018 filed an appeal with the Middletown zoning hearing board after Geosits sought to enforce the ban regarding four Penn State Harrisburg students who were living in a house on West Water Street owned by McGlone’s property holding company, Sweet Arrow Properties LLC.

The zoning board upheld the action by Geosits, and Sweet Arrow appealed the board’s decision to Dauphin County Court on Aug. 23, 2018. The appeal is pending.

McGlone has told the Press & Journal her appeal does not prevent council from acting to change or get rid of the ban against two or more unrelated people living in the same house.

Solicitor Latoya Bellamy was asked directly during the March 5 meeting by former borough councilor Rachelle Reid — who opposes the prohibition — whether council can act to change the ban “now” despite the litigation filed by McGlone. Bellamy declined to answer the question, but instead offered to talk to Reid one on one “after the meeting.”

Bellamy had also earlier during Cagle’s comments advised  council that the “particular issue” being discussed “is in litigation and I would advise any further discussion cease.”

March 14 meeting

Cagle told the Press & Journal that besides McGlone, he expects a group of at least five to 10 landlords to attend the March 14 meeting.

He contended that the ban is “impossible” for landlords to comply with in that it is illegal under the federal Fair Housing Act for them to discriminate against prospective tenants based upon their familial status.

Cagle also said that while the borough does have separate provisions in the zoning code to allow for student housing, the provisions are too costly for most landlords to comply with.

For example, the provisions require landlords to provide off-street parking for every unit they create, a requirement that may not be attainable in all areas of the borough due to space limitations.

Cagle referred to a story on abc27 quoting a landlord saying that Elizabethtown used to have the same ban in place against two or more unrelated persons living in the same house, but that the borough had acted to change the  ban to prohibit more than five unrelated people.

“Elizabethtown has done it and it worked out completely fine with them,” Cagle said.

Asked for comment, Elizabethtown Borough Manager Roni Ryan referred the Press & Journal to the borough zoning ordinance defining family as “including not more than three unrelated individuals.” The definition had been amended in November 2017. Ryan did not respond to comment regarding what the definition had been prior to being amended.

As Cagle has begun raising the issue in public on behalf of other Penn State Harrisburg students, another Middletown landlord is also now seeking relief from the ban against two unrelated persons living in the same house.

The Middletown zoning hearing board on March 12 was to hear a request for a variance from the prohibition that was filed by Young Investment Group LLC on behalf of a rental property that the group owns at a single-family detached house at 457 N. Spring St.

The action follows a “friendly reminder” the Young group received from Geosits in a letter dated July 31, 2018, referring to the borough receiving a citizen complaint alleging that the owner was advertising to rent the unit to someone who would join two existing roommates.

In a separate action, Geosits on Feb. 13 filed a summary citation with District Judge David Judy against Oskar Realty LLC, for allegedly violating the ban concerning tenants Oskar leases to at a three-story house the company owns at 352 S. Wood St.

The four occupants of the house are all Penn State students, a source told the Press & Journal.