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Better housing for city renters

April 02, 1999

They're usually elderly and they live an apartment that hasn't had much regular maintenance. They could complain, but they're afraid that if they do, the landlord will evict them. And so they put up with it, sometimes for years, in part because there's no regular inspection program for rental housing in Hagerstown.

So says Marc David, code enforcement officer for the City of Hagerstown. I talked to David and his boss, City Building Inspector Mike Heyser, after the House Environmental Matters Committee of the Maryland General Assembly defeated a bill that would have increased the $50 nuisance fine to $10 for every day the situation isn't corrected.

In this case, the situation that prompted the bill was a Hagerstown house whose neighbors complained about the smell of trash and cat urine. The House committee killed it, saying that the Maryland Judicial Conference said the bill had some technical problems.

But the bill's death prompted me to inquire about a proposal city code enforcement officials made last September to try to prevent such situations. Called the rental registration program, it would require rental property to be licensed by the city, with the license fee funding a full-time inspection program.

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After some discussion about what sort of fees would be appropriate, Mayor Bob Bruchey said it would be discussed in a future work session.

So when are we likely to get to the future?

"We'll probably present that to the council within the next two or three months," Heyser said.

How often do you see something that's truly awful?

"We probably have half a dozen a year, where we feel it's condemnable as soon as we walk in. We have two, the or four a month where the place is run down, and there hasn't been a whole lot of maintenance," he said.

Do landlords work well with your department?

"In the ones that are extremely bad, cooperation is tough tom come by," he said.

Do you have any sense that some of these people have gone into the rental property business without enough money to do what they need to do?

"It appears that way. From time we get someone who thought this was a way to make a lot of money. but it takes a while to make a lot of money, unless you have a lot of cash to begin with," Heyser said.

Are tenants themselves responsible for a lot of the damage?

"It's not unusual for us to look at a renovated apartment, and then go back and look at it a year later, and it's trashed," he said.

For the nuts and bolts of what the department's been working on, Heyser referred me to Marc David, the code enforcement officer. David said he began his research by asking all the surrounding areas - and some that are fairly distant - for copies of their ordinances.

One top concern was that the fees "not be so cost-prohibitive that landlords are saddled with another big payment."

In most areas, like Rockville and Gaithersburg, the amount of fee is set by the elected officials, David said.

How often would inspections be done?

"We were recommending that a license be good for a two-year period of time," David said, adding that the problem with making the inspection annual (aside from the fee) is that there are approximately 9,300 rental units in the city, 1,200 of which are run by the Hagerstown Housing Authority.

Depending on whether the city inspected those HHA units, David said an inspector could have a caseload of 15 to 20 units a day.

What sort of fees are being looked at?

A single-family rental dwelling (including half-doubles) could be $20, David said. For multi-unit apartment buildings, there'd a be a discount, he said. Other features that have been talked about include waiving the fee or the inspection of a rental unit that gets a clean bill of health three times in a row. There's also been some talk about allowing inspectors to do a "sample" of the apartments in a multi-unit building instead of putting the landlord through the expense of licensing every one.

Nobody imagines that this program will be popular with Hagerstown's landlord, already feeling the pinch from a state lead-paint law enacted in 1995, which some property owners say has cost them thousands of dollars to comply with.

The problem the city faces is that if most of the apartments in the city aren't well-maintained, then they will attract only those people who can't afford anything better, i.e., those people without much disposable income. Rental registration is one way to combat that deterioration, but the city will probably have to provide some incentives for landlords to upgrade some of these properties for higher-paying tenants.

Is rental registration a quick fix or an easy solution? Probably not, but allowing the city to become known as the housing center of last resort isn't the answer either.




Bob Maginnis is the editorial page editor of the Herald-Mail newpapers.

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