History of Conservatorship

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John Lyons, Esquire, Fels Fund Intern
Judy F. Berkman, Esquire, Managing Attorney
Regional Housing Legal Services
2 South Easton Road
Glenside, PA 19038
(215) 572-7300

December, 2009

Conservatorship initially developed in the 1960’s to combat landlords who neglected their
properties. The process is known by a variety of terms depending on the jurisdiction, with
Receivership and Conservatorship being the most common. The process typically allows tenants
in a multi-family apartment building to petition a Court to appoint a Conservator, who collects
rents and arranges for the code violations to be remediated. After a rocky start, including a
constitutional challenge in New York, Conservatorship has become an effective tool for tenants to
ensure that landlords keep their properties safe and habitable. [Note: Pennsylvania’s law does
not apply to vacant lots or to legally occupied properties.]

Since the 1990’s, an increasing number of jurisdictions have recognized that
Conservatorship could also be effectively used against absentee property owners who allow their
properties to become blighted. In states like Massachusetts and Ohio, and in cities like Baltimore
and Chicago, Conservatorship has been as an especially effective tool in situations where an
abandoned property has been resistant to traditional code enforcement tools. Since
Conservatorship is an in rem action, it provides a Conservator with the authority to abate the
blight, under court supervision, without requiring the consent of the owner.

The experience of the other jurisdictions has informed the recommendations in this
Manual. All jurisdictions require notice to owners and lienholders of property that is being
considered for conservatorship and report that the notice results in the absentee owner agreeing
to take action. Usually, any abatement by the owner is under Court supervision, which avoids the
all too common problem of an absentee owner doing piecemeal repairs as ordered by code
enforcement officials. In the more likely scenario where an owner or senior lienholder does not
respond or is unwilling to perform repairs, the Court can appoint a Conservator, who develops a
plan to abate the blight. Regardless of whether an owner or the Conservator abates the blight,
the community benefits when the property is returned to productive use.

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