July 15, 2013, was something of a turning point in my life. It was the first time I was ever confronted with telephone calls and an uproar over the presence of absentee landlords and drug houses in Williamsport. Although I read the newspapers and worried like everyone else, my knowledge of the drug trade in Williamsport was apocryphal.
I remember when I came to town in the early ‘70s, being told a story about a reformed drug dealer who was on the Johnny Carson show. Carson, in inimitable style, asked the man where the best place in the country was to get drugs, and he promptly responded “Muncy, Pennsylvania.” Our reputation as a drug mecca goes back a long way.
Part of the problem is rooted in the fact that we are a rural, small city with many of the advantages that are found in a diverse environment. We have a multi-cultural population in Williamsport, where we occupy a niche of unparalleled physical beauty. Interstate roads and a reasonably good airport gives us access to tens of millions of people within easy reach. New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, D.C., and Niagara Falls are automobile rides that could easily be accomplished in a half day or less.
A relative of mine is a psychiatric social worker in the big city. She told me that 30 years ago it was common for social workers to get people off their rolls and out of their hair by sending them to small communities such as Allentown, Altoona, and eventually Williamsport. Our public officials were blamed for encouraging this so-called “influx,” but in fact they were passive actors in a national trend. As the big cities became increasingly unable to afford their drug and welfare problems, the undesirables became a commodity to be shipped elsewhere. Along with doctors, lawyers, accountants and businesspeople who came to North Central Pennsylvania, arrived the rejected refuse of frustrated big city bureaucrats.
Initially the “influx” stirred racial fears. Many of the new arrivals were African-Americans, and others who had a small and relatively insignificant presence in North Central Pennsylvania. While some of that xenophobia still exists, the racial paranoia has turned more into a desperate attempt to keep drugs out of our fair community.
Without question, part of the problem lies in our begrudging tolerance of drug landlords. Many of those landlords are out-of-towners, but just as many, are local people. Cash payments by housing occupants who will not complain about broken toilets is very attractive to some entrepreneurs. In five to seven years, a mortgage can be paid off and the house flipped for a higher price than it was purchased. Landlord-tenant laws are not especially strong for the renter in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Codes enforcement has been weak to nonexistent, and the City has been unable to afford a more substantial police presence. All of this makes for a marvelous environment for unscrupulous landlords to enjoy an easy cash flow. None of this, of course, is reported on income taxes.
There may be a partial solution to the drug house problem, but it will mean public officials will have to take a strong stance against some of the very people who support their political ambitions. Some of the landlords in town who own real estate, will have to fess up that they are not clean either. Substandard housing is not only owned by out-of-town real estate junkies.
Everytime a druggie is arrested, police questioning should include “who is your landlord” and “do you pay cash?” This kind of information, together with joint local, federal and state cooperation, can result in criminal prosecutions against the landlords. Many of the landlords are co-conspirators in the operation of the drug houses and receive money in cash on which they never pay taxes. Legitimate criminal enforcement against landlords, both local and out-of-town, may result in a reduction in substandard housing. Landlords who accept cash and do not pay taxes should go to jail like any other tax evader. Landlords who have every reason to know that criminal activity is going on within their premises and turn a blind eye may certainly be charged criminally for a variety of offenses. This may make a lot of people feel queasy who are relatively high up in government and law enforcement, but it is an approach that has its merits.
Law enforcement should never be used as an illegitimate hammer to achieve political ends. On the other hand, our criminal laws do have a place in addressing easy access to housing by drug users, abusers and sellers.
The City needs to be aggressive in serious codes inspection and enforcement. One or even two people simply cannot do the job. Where will the money come from for these people? Regionalization is one answer. Drug dealers are not only renting within the city of Williamsport, although that is their primary domain. While money is scarce these days, we are going to have to make some hard choices as citizens as to whether we want to complain or whether we want to clean up our neighborhoods. The latter may take more money than we have thus far been willing to spend.
Finally, there must be much stronger police presence together with the excellent efforts at community engagement. The community has a role, not only in complaining and driving public officials to do the right thing, but also in keeping our own City in order. Recently citizens cooperated at a parade in order to accomplish the arrest of a drug seller. This sort of behavior needs to become the rule rather than the exception.
Many times making the right decisions, including allocating necessary funds, is difficult, but at some point we are going to have to realize that actions speak louder than words.
Rieders, Travis, Dohrmann, Mowrey, Humphrey & Waters
161 West Third Street
Williamsport, PA 17701
(570) 323-8711 (telephone)
(570) 323-4192 (facsimile)
Cliff Rieders, who practices law in Williamsport, is Past President of the Pennsylvania Trial Lawyers Association and a member of the Pennsylvania Patient Safety Authority. None of the opinions expressed necessarily represent the views of these organizations.