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City OKs rental licensing plan

The program, which received general approval from the Hagerstown City Council, would require landlords to pay an annual fee of $

The program, which received general approval from the Hagerstown City Council, would require landlords to pay an annual fee of $

July 17, 2002|by SCOTT BUTKI

scottb@herald-mail.com

The Hagerstown City Council on Tuesday gave general approval to the creation of a proposed program requiring landlords to pay an annual fee of $45 per rental unit, which city officials said would pay for hiring six new inspectors and an administrative assistant.

The residential rental licensing program is intended to help the city improve rental housing to try to prevent people from living in substandard apartments, City Engineer Rodney Tissue said.

The city currently has three inspectors and is hiring a fourth, Tissue said. The additional staff would allow the city to switch from being reactive to proactive, he said.

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All five council members said on Tuesday that they support the program.

About 80 percent of the workload of the city Office of Code Compliance, which consists of the city inspectors, is related to the city's rental housing, City Chief Code Enforcement Officer John Lestitian told the council.

Under the proposed program, it would be illegal to operate a residential rental facility within city limits without obtaining an annual license. The city would have the authority to revoke or deny licenses.

According to Census 2000 statistics, the city has 9,214 rental units.

There are about 20,000 people in Hagers-town living in rental housing, city officials said. The 2000 Census said the city's population is 36,687.

Lestitian said he expects landlords to pass the license costs on to tenants.

Other cities in the Tri-State area have similar programs with annual costs ranging from $3 per unit to $100 per unit, he said.

The next step after Tuesday's meeting is for the city to draft an ordinance for the program, Mayor William Breichner said. The city will hold a public hearing on the ordinance, which would require council approval, he said.

It would take at least six months to implement the program, Breichner said.

Currently, properties are inspected mostly in response to complaints, Tissue said.

Under the proposal, rental properties would be inspected at least annually. Facilities without any violations in a 12-month period would be able to skip the next inspection. That exception is to reward good behavior and let the city better allocate its resources, Lestitian said.

Allan Johnson, president of the Landlords and Property Owners Association of Washington County, said the group opposes creation of a registration program.

The council's attitude seemed to be that all landlords are problematic and he resents that suggestion, Johnson said. The majority of the problems come from just a few people, he said.

The city is creating a new bureaucracy, Johnson said.

Johnson thinks the city should have waited to see the effect of a habitual offender law approved by the city in December.

Under the law, someone convicted in court of violating the city property maintenance code three times within 24 months will be labeled a habitual offender for the next year. If during that year the habitual offender violates the property maintenance code again, he or she will face a fine of up to $1,000 or up to 90 days in jail.

Previously, violations of the city property maintenance code only carried fines of up to $1,000.

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