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City Council debates rental licensing law

August 21, 2002|by SCOTT BUTKI

scottb@herald-mail.com

A proposed city rental registration licensing program would constitute unnecessary government intrusion into residents' homes, Hagerstown City Councilman Lewis Metzner said Tuesday.

"The road of government overreaching is paved with good intentions," he said during the council's work session.

Other council members said the intrusion is necessary to ensure people aren't living in substandard apartments.

The discussion came as the council took its first look at a draft of an ordinance that would create the program, under which landlords would be required to pay an annual fee of $45 per rental unit to fund more frequent inspections of properties.

At its July 16 meeting, the City Council gave general approval to creation of the program.

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.

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Under the proposal, rental properties would be inspected at least once a year. Currently, they are inspected only in response to complaints.

Any property that does not have a violation during its anniversary inspection and has not had violations during the prior year would be exempt from the next scheduled inspection.

The council discussed possible exceptions to the ordinance including "properties owned by a property owner who owns, controls or operates no more than four rental units in the city" and "a rental facility owned by a private charitable or nonprofit organization and used for charitable housing purposes."

Council members said they wanted to see what exemptions are included in the ordinances adopted by other cities with registration programs.

Metzner and other council members agreed the city needs to do something for those instances in which rental units become "slums."

But Metzner was skeptical about whether the solution was to inspect every rental unit, examining them to see if they meet all laws in the city Properties Maintenance Code.

The city's proposed ordinance is modeled after those in place in other Maryland cities that have the program, including Rockville, Annapolis and Cumberland, Chief Inspector John Lestitian said.

The council is scheduled to discuss the ordinances during a work session in September.

If there were a better way to fix the problem he'd support it, Councilman N. Linn Hendershot said. But the only solution he knows of is the rental program.

At one point, Metzner said he would rather increase taxes to pay for more inspectors than institute the program.

Lestitian said the problem was not just one of staffing and workload but also of gaining entry into properties. The city now has to apply for a search warrant for each property it wants to inspect, which takes staff time, he said.

Search warrants would not be necessary under the proposed program in which the city would inspect rental units prior to issuing the annual license.

Councilwoman Penny May Nigh said she knows people, including some on her own street, living in places that are not fit for habitation. She said the tenants are afraid to complain to their landlords about the conditions.

"The current system is not working," City Administrator Bruce Zimmerman said. Some property owners won't make improvements until their tenants complain, he said.

Zimmerman said the licensing program is the most important legislation the City Council will address this year.

Lestitian said residential rentals are a $50 million business in the city. He came up with that estimate by multiplying the city's estimated 9,214 rental units times a median rent of $450 times the 12 months of the year.

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

According to the 2000 Census, the city's population is 36,687.

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