Housing inspection has room for improvement

November 18, 2002|BY ANDREW SCHOTZ

HAGERSTOWN - Liveable doesn't have to mean beautiful, but there are some things John Lestitian won't ignore.

At the end of a common hallway in a building on East Franklin Street, dead ahead, is a gas grill with a propane tank. It shouldn't be there, says Lestitian, the chief code enforcement officer for the city of Hagerstown.

This is the first of several rental properties he'll inspect within a few hours.

He walks outside and rounds the building to the left. A red circle pokes conspicuously through the bottom of a second-floor wooden deck. Lestitian quizzically eyes it as he passes it on the stairway.

"I have not seen that before," Lestitian says.

It's a plastic bucket, plugging a hole in the wood.

Lestitian walks past the bags of trash and the shattered plastic strewn on the deck and steps inside.

He sees another problem down the hall. The sash of the window facing East Franklin Street is lying on the floor. Glass is everywhere. The window frame is nothing but open air. No one is around.


Lestitian pulls out his cell phone and calls the property manager right away.

He hangs up and wonders if the tenants notice - or care.

"I look at stuff like this ...," Lestitian says. "These are maintenance issues - a bucket filling a hole. It's a cycle. Is it first the tenant, then the property owner? Or first the property owner, then the tenant?

"At some point, you have to block that cycle."

More inspectors due

Lestitian says the city is doing what it can.

Three inspectors work for him now. By April, the number will increase to seven.

The city council voted on Oct. 22 to expand its rental inspection program and make it mandatory, instead of based on complaints. Property owners will be charged $45 a year per unit they own, which will pay for the additional employees.

Next spring, when the new employees are hired, the city will start inspecting every rental unit - except the ones that are exempt.

Using a U.S. Census estimate, city officials say there are 9,214 rental units in Hagerstown. About 1,180 public housing units and 400 owner-occupied duplexes and doubles are exempt.

Lestitian guesses that will leave between 7,200 and 7,400 units to inspect, which will take 11 to 13 months.

An early draft of the plan called for more than four inspectors to be hired, but the number was scaled down when the exemptions were added.

After the initial mass inspections, property will be re-inspected every 36 months or when new tenants move in.

A bloc of landlords opposes the expanded program, citing worries that it will be onerous if the pettiest of violations are enforced.

The landlords also say the program unfairly punishes all landlords for the carelessness of some.

An ordinance already on the books punishes habitual property code violators with fines and jail time, which should be enough of an enforcement tool, Allan Johnson, president of the Landlords and Property Owners Association of Washington County, has said.

Hearing from landlords that rents might go up, tenants have protested, too.

The Landlords and Property Owners Association is in the midst of a petition drive that could force a public referendum on the inspection program. That could delay the new initiative for more than two years if the city waits until the next regularly scheduled election - March 2005 - to hold a vote.

Lestitian has a theory why there's been such an outcry.

"In general, people don't like change and this constitutes a fundamental change in the way we do business, from reactive to proactive," he says.

In a letter to the editor in August, Johnson wrote that landlords have a fear "of the unknown."

"The $45 registration fee is small compared to potential costs as the result of an inspection by a code enforcer strictly following the BOCA (Builders Official Code Administration) code book," he wrote.

His letter says one city landlord "was forced to shut down a rental unit" because the ceiling was 6-foot-8, or 4 inches short of the minimum allowable height.

The city has countered the landlords' crusade with a public awareness campaign. At a press conference this month, Police Chief Arthur Smith said drug-related crime would drop if apartment inspections pick up.

The city invited the media to ride along with inspectors last week to publicize their work.

Under scrutiny

When he's finished on East Franklin Street, Lestitian goes to a rental home on Randolph Avenue. George Walling, who lives there with his wife, is coping with mold on his wall.

Lestitian stoops in a corner and shines a flashlight on a large spot.

Walling opens the closet and takes out a leather coat draped in plastic wrap. The coat is smothered in mold.

"I'll have to throw it away," he says.

His wife has already discarded two ruined coats.

Walling leads Lestitian through the rest of the small apartment. Above the dropped ceiling, the original ceiling is crumbling. Walling says water "comes pouring in" through a wall when it rains.

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