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Landlords enlisting tenants to fight fees

August 01, 2002|by SCOTT BUTKI

scottb@herald-mail.com

Some city landlords are telling their tenants that if they don't want a rent increase they should register their opposition to a proposed city program under which landlords would pay an annual fee of $45 per rental unit to fund more frequent inspections of rental properties.

"We are getting the reaction from the tenants that we want: They are mad," Allan Johnson, president of Landlords and Property Owners Association of Washington County, Maryland Inc., said Wednesday.

The landlord group is encouraging landlords and tenants to contact city elected officials to register opposition to the proposal, Johnson said.

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The one-page form letter being distributed to tenants has the subject heading "tenant alert" and says, "If you are opposed to this registration program and increased rent, sign, date and return this to your landlord."

The association will collect the signed forms and turn them over to the city, Johnson said.

"It's our way of showing disapproval of the situation," Johnson said.

He said tenants need not fear recriminations if they don't sign the forms, Johnson said.

At its July 16 meeting, the Hagerstown City Council gave general approval to creation of the program, which is intended to help the city improve rental housing to prevent people from living in substandard apartments.

The City Council would have to adopt a new ordinance for the program to go into effect and a public hearing would be held.

The City of Hagerstown has no response to the form letter, city spokeswoman Karen Giffin said Wednesday.

City officials said the annual fee would pay salaries for six new inspectors and an administrative assistant. The city has three inspectors and is hiring a fourth.

Under the proposal, rental properties would be inspected at least once a year, City Engineer Rodney Tissue has said. Currently, they are inspected only in response to complaints, he has said.

According to Census 2000 statistics, the city has 9,214 rental units. The 180 landlords in the association rent out about 2,000 to 3,000 of those units, Johnson said.

About 20,000 people in Hagerstown live in rental housing, city officials said.

The 2000 Census said the city's population is 36,687.

The notice being distributed tells residents the program will result in "an increase in rent due to the registration fees and related costs." The "related costs" would be repairs that had to be made in response to city inspections, Johnson said.

The notice says residents could expect an "intrusion on your lifestyle and privacy by having inspectors in your home periodically."

Councilman Lewis Metzner said he wants the council at future meetings to have "substantial discussion" about what the program would entail.

Metzner said he does not want the program to be an excuse for inspectors to examine every item in a property to see if it meets code compliance. Instead, he said, he wants inspectors to look for major violations, such as slum-like conditions.

Mayor William M. Breichner said form letters such as the one distributed by the association don't affect his opinion as much as personal calls and notes.

"Something like this has to be taken with a grain of salt," he said.

Councilman Kristin Aleshire said his response to the form letter is the same he has for landlords who suggest he will not be re-elected if he supports the program: "I don't expect to be here forever."

If he does something positive during his term, such as creating the inspection program, then he doesn't mind being voted out of office after a single term, he said.

Johnson said the proposed program "punishes the many landlords who are doing well with their properties."

Johnson said the city should have waited to see the effect of a habitual offender law that the city approved in December 2001.

Under the law, someone convicted 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 person again violates the property maintenance code, 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 carried fines of up to $1,000.

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