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Rental inspection: Good step for city

July 18, 2002|by BOB MAGINNIS

In a surprise move, the Hagerstown City Council this week decided to implement a program to register and inspect the city's 9,214 rental units. It could not have come at a better time. We predict that a year after it's set up, even those who oppose it now will praise it.

The plan would require landlords to pay a $45 annual fee to have each unit inspected. The city would hire six new inspectors and an administrative assistant to run the program, which Mayor Bill Breichner said would probably take six months to implement.

Based on Tuesday's approval, the city will now draft an ordinance. That should be no problem, given the fact that cities all over Maryland, including Annapolis, Rockville and Cumberland, have had such laws for years, with experienced inspectors who can tell Hagerstown staffers what works and what doesn't.

Then the ordinance will go to public hearing, where it will face criticism from those who feel it's only a few "bad apples" who need attention. Perhaps that's true, but as long as the system is set up to respond only to complaints, tenants who fear a fight with their landlords will put up with substandard conditions.

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The problem touches every taxpayer because property values - and property-tax revenues - haven't increased as fast as the city's expenses. To get more property-tax revenue, the city must get owners to improve their properties.

In February council members offered a carrot- property tax credits for those who renovate - and now they're bringing out the stick of enforcement.

The time is right for this, because, given the water shortage and development moratorium in Frederick, the price of existing homes there will increase, pricing some out of the market.

Rental inspection will encourage those people to come to Hagerstown, because it will ensure those who invest that others in their neighborhood will have to meet minimum standards. It will also encourage some of those "bad apples" to sell out, giving the city a chance for a new crop of better, more responsible landlords.

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