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Police chief: Rental registration has benefits

November 08, 2002|by SCOTT BUTKI

scottb@herald-mail.com

A rental registration program that city officials say is intended to improve the quality of rental housing would likely result in fewer drug-related crimes, Hagerstown Police Chief Arthur Smith said at a press conference Thursday.

Studies show that criminals are more likely to break laws in an area where there is low-quality rental housing, Smith said.

But if a criminal sees an area with clean, orderly well-kept housing, he concludes "this is not his kind of place," Smith said.

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The press conference at City Hall kicked off a city public information campaign on the program. The campaign comes in part in response to an attempt by the Landlords and Property Owners Association of Washington County to take the issue to referendum.

The Hagerstown City Council on Oct. 22 unanimously approved the ordinance, which would charge landlords $45 a year per rental unit to finance regular rental property inspections. City rental properties currently are inspected in response to complaints.

About 20,000 of approximately 35,000 Hagerstown residents live in rental housing, city officials say.

The program would help City Police in the fight against drug dealing, Smith said.

"We have tried this way for a long time, with no inspections," Smith said. "From a law enforcement perspective, it will be good to try something different."

Allan Johnson, Landlords and Property Owners Association president, said it was difficult to guess whether the drug problems would be reduced if the program were implemented. Johnson was not at the press conference.

About 50 people attended the press conference, with most indicating by a show of hands that they support the ordinance.

One of the supporters was Chris Yambor of 131 S. Prospect Ave., who said he has been distributing fliers produced by the city to explain the facts about the program, which is scheduled to go into effect in April 2003.

If the Landlords and Property Owners Association collects 4,000 signatures by Nov. 20, the city can't implement the questioned ordinance until after the issue is voted on, Johnson said. The 200-member association has about 2,000 signatures now, he said.

The association collected about 1,000 signatures at voting precincts Tuesday, a move that sparked complaints by some voters and City Council members.

The Washington County Board of Elections allowed association members to collect signatures within 100 feet of polling places even though the state Board of Elections says they couldn't be that close to voters, City Administrator Bruce Zimmerman said.

Donna J. Duncan, director of the Elections Management Division of the Maryland Board of Elections, said Thursday she received a few phone calls Tuesday from people complaining about the petitions but she has not received any formal written complaints.

Johnson said the Landlords and Property Owners Association did nothing wrong.

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

The initial proposal was for the city to make annual inspections. The city amended the proposal partially in response to comments by association members, city officials said.

The Landlords and Property Owners Association says the ordinance unfairly punishes all landlords for the actions of a few bad ones. Its members say existing laws can address any problems with the quality of rental housing.

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