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York City sues landlord, roomers out of 'nuisance' building
York City convinced the courts that a rooming house in the west end of town is such a haven of crime that the landlord can't be allowed to operate it anymore and all the roomers should be evicted.
York County Court of Common Pleas Judge Stephen Linebaugh granted the city an injunction earlier this month to that effect, ruling that "York City would suffer irreparable harm" if the activity at the rooming house at 612 W. Market St. were to continue.
York City Police have been called to the 15-room "nuisance" property more than 100 times since December 2010, investigating everything from rape to armed robbery to murder, according to the civil suit the city filed on April 8. Officers have arrested more than 50 people there, documents state.
Lt. Troy Bankert, who supervises the department's detective bureau, testified before Linebaugh during an April 14 hearing on behalf of the police department. On Friday, he told The York Dispatch that the address was one familiar to every officer who patrols the area.
"This is an extreme case," he said.
Everyone out: In the injunction, which came down on May 4, Linebaugh ruled that Alfred Riccio, the landlord, immediately had to stop using the property as a rooming house and that everyone inside had to be evicted by either Riccio or the city.
Riccio, of Manchester Township, is an ailing man in his "upper 80s," according to his lawyer, Gilbert Malone. Riccio has owned the property since 2004, documents indicate. He didn't come to the April hearing because he was in the hospital, Malone said Riccio told him.
Riccio had allowed his license to run the property as a rooming house to expire last year, his lawyer confirmed.
According to the injunction, Riccio can in the future apply to become re-licensed to operate the rooming house, but not without the Court of Common Pleas allowing him to do so. Malone said it's uncertain what his client will try to do, but it's most likely that he'll simply try to sell the property.
No one answered a knock on the door of the three-story row-home-style building on Friday afternoon. A "no trespassing" sign was stuck right in the middle of the door, and most of the windows were shrouded by curtains, blankets and the like.
Bankert said at least some of the tenants are still living there in the red-painted brick building, though — the city sent out letters after the ruling came down, giving the roomers 30 days' notice of the eviction. He said some of them asked for more time, which the city granted them.
100+ incidents: Of the 100-plus incidents since December 2010, 20 of them happened between January 2015 and Feb. 23, 2016, eight had to do with drug dealing or using. Between Feb. 23 and April 19, police responded 10 more times to the address, including one report of someone assaulting someone else with a hammer, according to court documents.
A search of "612 W. Market St." in The York Dispatch archives yields stories about a range of crimes. In November 2011, two men lured a drug dealer to the property, where they robbed and murdered him.
About a year and a half later, a woman residing there bit off a "good portion" of her live-in boyfriend's ear.
Bankert described the Sisyphean task the police faced in of trying to cut down on crime there. They'd move in and arrest some people for prostitution, for dealing drugs, for theft, and it would help for a while. But then after a couple of months, the reports of crimes would start flowing in again.
"I got tired of just seeing the address," he said.
He said the department came to a rare conclusion: It could not enforce its way out of this issue — there were no penalties it could hand down to any amount of people that would permanently rid the building of crime.
"It was suitable to high criminal activity the way it was run," he said of the rooming house.
Unusual tack: So, Bankert said, the police opted for an unusual route: Have the city sue Riccio in civil court.
"Our mandate is enforcement first, but when that fails, we have to find something else," he said.
It's not an approach the department and the city will look to take often going forward, he said. They'll consider it on a case-by-case basis going forward, but they only will seek to use the civil-litigation route when there's a case such as this one where the issue of high crime seems endemic to the place — when it's not like they can deal with a couple of people causing trouble and the problem will be over, he said.
"It has to be severe, and this was severe," he said. "It definitely was successful with this one."
Malone maintained that all the alleged illegal activity was carried out by the tenants or other people, and Riccio had no part in it.
"My client did not know about it, my client didn't encourage it, my client didn't profit from it," Malone said. When Riccio did hear about the activity — police told him after a building inspector found some codes issues in November — he took action to evict the tenants, but it's a long process to do that, the lawyer said.
City solicitor Don Hoyt said this type of legal action isn't an approach the city takes often and nor will it be one it plans to use frequently in the future.
"It’s very rare. We have limited manpower," he said. "(But this) just struck me as being a serious enough situation."