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Hagerstown tenants should call landlords' bluff over 'rent increases'

August 04, 2002|by TIM ROWLAND

Some Hagerstown landlords have been going around this week trying to scare their tenants into believing that rents will skyrocket if the city passes an apartment-inspection program.

A few of them obviously don't want their properties held up to the light of day, so they're trying to get the tenants to do their dirty work for them by flooding City Hall with form letters in protest of the proposal.

Here is what city tenants need to know: The apartment inspection program will be paid for by the landlords to a tune of $45 a year for each apartment they rent out.

That comes to $3.75 a month per unit.

So if your landlord comes to you and says your rent is going up $10 a month or more due to the inspection program, he's either:

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1. anticipating that he's actually going to have to shell out some bucks to fix up the dumps he rents out, or

2. giving you the shaft, and using the city's inspection program as an excuse to fatten his own wallet.

Landlords are saying they'll have to jack up rents citywide to pay for "the registration fees and related costs." Ah, related costs. There's the rub. "Related costs" as in finally replacing that bathtub that's been lying in two halves for the past three years, or taking steps to bring down the per-capita rat population.

"Related costs" mean replacing the shattered window that's been cardboarded over. "Related costs" mean fixing the toilet that drains half into the sewer pipe and half on the floor. For landlords who view working toilets as optional equipment, I have little sympathy.

Of course decent landlords (the great majority, I suspect) already provide their tenants with working toilets and vermin-free bedrooms. Provided they get some assurances from the city, they should have nothing to worry about - nor should their tenants.

The first major assurance the city should provide to landlords is the guarantee, written into the law, that the rental inspection program is designed only to root out despicable slums and crack houses. As Councilman Lew Metzner correctly alluded to this week, it should not, nor should it ever be allowed to become, an apartment witchhunt whereby nit-picking inspectors are citing landlords for tacky wallpaper or ancient building-code violations.

In a sense, I can understand why landlords are uneasy. How many simple, well-intentioned government initiatives have turned into bureaucratic nightmares? But there's no reason the city and landlord association can't work together and put acceptable guidelines down in writing.

The second assurance is that the city will somehow work with the landlords when the broken windows, smashed toilets and ripped-up drywall are the fault of the tenant. For all the bad landlords that might be out there, there are some worse tenants, I am sure. Along with landlord responsibility, the city's new law should factor in tenant responsibility as well.

In fact, the greater goal is neighborhood responsibility, and to that end the city could perhaps cleverly put the landlord association's letter-writing scheme to use.

The mayor's office could deliver the tenant form letters to the Hagerstown Home Store, the agency that tries to match potential homeowners with city housing. The Home Store might find a few new leads.

And heck, if landlords are thundering about raising the rent, perhaps the city can give the tenants some ammunition with which to thunder back - that being the knowledge that monthly house payments might not be so much higher than monthly rent payments.

No one expects the landlords to roll over and take a city inspection program without some sort of protest. But ginning up tenant fear is a cruel way to go about it.

Most of the people living in bad apartments are not the best-educated and will be susceptable to threats of increased rent - if they're paying much rent at all, considering the amount of taxpayer-subsidized housing there is in Hagerstown.

The other argument - renters' privacy will be infringed by jackbooted inspectors - is a shallow appeal to the drug culture, which may be more aptly framed as: "You don't a G-man bursting in on your little crack party do you?"

I'm susceptible to the argument that if people wish to destroy their lives with drugs and reside in squalor, that's their business. But in many cases there are children involved.

In housing, there should be a minimum standard of decency. Is the landlord association really saying that, in the name of sparing them "another layer of bureaucracy," some children must grow up home without working toilets and some elderly tenants must spend a few weeks in the winter without heat?

The message ought to be this: If you are so poor that you can't afford to fix up your properties, don't become a landlord.

I'm no fan of new government programs. But if they were brutally honest, the landlords would be blaming the bad apples in their own profession, and not the city, for necessitating these regulations.

Landlords know what's out there. Instead of wondering why new regs are needed, they should probably be curious why the city waited so long.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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