Landlord fees aren't new in Md.

Hagerstown's City Council is scheduled to compare its proposal to register rental property to similar programs across the state.

Hagerstown's City Council is scheduled to compare its proposal to register rental property to similar programs across the state.

September 03, 2002|by SCOTT BUTKI

A debate about whether the City of Hagerstown should adopt a rental registration program mirrors a disagreement about a similar program in Cumberland, Md., officials there said last week.

If Hagerstown adopts the program, the Maryland Municipal League says, it will join at least 16 other Maryland cities, including Cumberland, Rockville, Gaithersburg, Salisbury and Annapolis, that have rental registration programs in which landlords are charged a fee that funds the programs.

At its July 16 meeting, the Hagerstown City Council gave general approval to creation of the program after city officials said it is needed to help the city improve rental housing to try to prevent people from living in substandard rental units.


At its Sept. 10 meeting, the council is scheduled to compare the city proposal to other cities' programs.

Cumberland Councilman H. Butch Hendershot said Hagerstown should adopt the program if there are some rental properties that are substandard because they are not being inspected. Currently, properties are inspected mostly in response to complaints, Hagerstown officials say.

In Cumberland, and probably in Hagerstown, there are rental tenants who are scared to report problems with their landlords for fear of eviction, Hendershot said.

Five years ago, Hendershot voted, after months of debate on the issue, for creation of the city's rental registration program. Landlords are charged an annual license fee of $15 per rental unit.

"Housing has improved probably as a result of the program. That is my sense," he said. "It was for the good of the rental population."

But Jeff Hutter, president of the Associated Landlords of Cumberland, said his group opposed creation of the program and continues to oppose it. Similarly, Allan Johnson, president of Landlords and Property Owners Association of Washington County, has spoken against the Hagerstown proposal.

Hutter's group represents 110 property owners and about 1,100 rental units in the Cumberland area, he said. There are 3,481 rental units in the city inspection program, city officials said.

Hutter stated an argument Johnson has also made: The city should go after landlords known for not being responsive to problems and complaints instead of punishing all landlords for the actions of a few.

Both also question the size of Hagerstown's proposed program, in which landlords would be required to pay an annual license fee of $45 per unit. The city estimates there are 9,214 rental units, which means the program could generate more than $400,000 a year.

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

But Hagerstown Chief Inspector John Lestitian said the problem is 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.

That is different from the procedure in Cumberland, where rental properties are inspected each time there is a change in occupancy, unless there are more than two changes of occupancy in a single year, said Jeff Rhodes, Cumberland's director of community development. Some apartments have yet to be inspected because there has been no change of occupancy, he said.

Some Cumberland landlords like the program because it provides documentation of the condition of an apartment before a tenant moves in, which could help in court if a tenant damages the property, Rhodes said.

Some cities charge more than the $45 per unit Hagerstown is considering and some charge less. Cumberland charges $15 per unit.

The city of Annapolis charged $15 a unit when it started its program about 15 years ago but it now charges $55 a unit, Annapolis officials said.

The city of Gaithersburg's program charges $100 every two years for a single-family condo and $75 every two years for an apartment, Gaithersburg officials said.

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