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City Council votes to adopt rental program

October 23, 2002|by JULIE E. GREENE

julieg@herald-mail.com

The Hagerstown City Council voted unanimously Tuesday night to adopt a rental registration program designed to improve rental housing in the city.

The inspections aren't expected to begin until April because the city needs to hire six new employees and train them, City Engineer Rodney Tissue said before the council met to vote.

City Council members Kristin Aleshire, Penny May Nigh, Carol Moller, Linn Hendershot and Lewis Metzner voted to approve the program.

Metzner cast the sole opposing vote when the proposed law was introduced last month.

Metzner has said he felt the program changed from one designed to stop substandard conditions to a mechanism to regulate rental businesses. He also has said he thinks it violates citizens' rights to privacy.

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"I understand the concerns. I have mixed emotions tonight," Metzner told his colleagues before they cast their votes.

After the meeting, Metzner explained that changes in the proposed law prompted him to support it.

Metzner said his concerns about privacy were addressed with the addition to the law that tenants have the right to be notified and present during the inspections.

Also, properties will be inspected when the tenants change, meaning many of the inspections will be done when the units are vacant, Metzner said.

Under the program, properties will be inspected after a license application is submitted. Properties will be inspected every three years or when there is a change in occupancy, whichever occurs first, Tissue said.

Property owners must pay an annual $45 fee per rental unit to support the program.

That money will be used to hire five new inspectors in the new year and an administrative assistant this year to start the rental unit database, Tissue said. A sixth new inspector was originally proposed, but was cut when city officials decided to exempt certain rental units, he said.

The Hagerstown Housing Authority's 1,180 rental units and an estimated 400 rental units that are owner-occupied duplexes or doubles are exempt, city officials said.

That leaves an estimated 7,634 rental units in the city, city officials said. Approximately 20,000 people in Hagerstown live in rental housing, city officials said.

Currently, rental properties are only inspected in response to complaints, city officials have said.

Hagerstown resident and landlord Doug Devin expressed concerns about the constitutionality of the program during Tuesday night's citizens comment period, after the vote.

Devin said the program violates the Fourth Amendment. He said tenants could refuse the inspection, requiring a warrant for a rental unit to be inspected.

Devin said rental inspectors could bring the police or health officials into apartments.

Metzner, a criminal defense attorney, told Devin that the city's legal advisors told city officials the courts have upheld similar programs throughout the country.

"If it's unconstitutional, it'll be challenged in the courts. I personally have thought since day one that if it isn't, it should be," Metzner said.

"I would invite a court challenge," Metzner said.

After the meeting, Tissue said inspectors would not be rummaging through tenants' belongings. They would be inspecting the entrances and exits, heating systems and ventilation.

Tissue said he couldn't say how the city would address a situation in which an inspector found an illegal substance in plain view. That will be handled during the inspectors' training, he said.

A public hearing on the program was never held, though city officials got plenty of feedback.

The president of the Landlords and Property Owners Association of Washington County had urged landlords and tenants to protest the program because it punishes all property owners for the misdeeds of a few.

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