Rental plan a must-have for Hagerstown

November 18, 2002|by BOB MAGINNIS

This past Oct. 22, the Hagerstown City Council approved an ordinance to allow the periodic inspection of rental housing, a measure other cities, including Annapolis, Cumberland, Frostburg and Rockville, have had for years.

Though John Lestitian, the city's chief code enforcement officer, has been working with the Landlords and Property Owners Association of Washington County, the association has petitioned the ordinance to referendum. This week I talked to Lestitian about why such a law is needed.

Certainly there are good and bad landlords in the city. Why can't you just go after the bad ones, and let the good ones alone?

Lestitian said he didn't like to define owners in terms of "good" and "bad," although he said later that there are some on whom his department spends a great deal of time, because they repeatedly say they'll comply, then don't.


Instead, he compared the rental ordinance to the inspections of restaurants by the health department, or the review of professionals' conduct by outside agencies.

Without an inspection program, Lestitian said, "How do we know who is a responsible landlord and who is not?"

Even when they walk through a unit, prospective renters can't always tell if there are problems, Lestitian said. He described a call he received recently from a family who had just moved into a city apartment.

Did they walk through it before renting?

"They did, but on they day they did, it wasn't raining, so they didn't know the roof leaks, or hear the pigeons in the attic. Now did anyone step out on the back porch and notice that it was ready to fall down," he said.

Lestitian said he was concerned that some members of the landlords' group aren't getting good information, because some he talks to want buildings near those they own fixed up.

"They say they have a hard time attracting responsible tenants because of what's next door," he said, adding that the ordinance "will give us the resources they need to clean up this industry."

What about the issue of tenants' privacy?

Unlike other cities, where inspections are done at inspectors' convenience, Lestitian said Hagerstown's ordinance requires both landlords and the city to notify tenants and give them the right to be present. And, because after the initial inspection the only checks done will be when a tenant leaves, it shouldn't be an issue, he said.

Code inspectors in other cities have told me it's their policy to work with landlords who are making progress, and give them time to correct problems. Would you take such an approach?

Once the property owner takes care of the life and safety issues, Lestitian said, a plan can be developed to take care of other items over several months or even a year.

Are landlords with whom you repeatedly have problems residents of Hagerstown?

Not all live in the city, but most live in Washington County or other areas of the state of Maryland, he said. It's the people who won't work with the department, who promise to comply and then don't, who drain the department's resources. The new fee will provide the fees to keep current.

For example, he said, the habitual-offender law - which provides that a property owner who is cited for noncompliance more than three times in 24 months can be subject to criminal penalties the fourth time around - would be easier to enforce.

"If we had the resources to take them to court more often, we could do more," he said.

Lestitian took issue with statements made in a landlord group mailing which said property taxes would be increased to fund the program and implied that once problem properties are cleaned up inspectors wouldn't have enough to do.

The mayor and council have strongly supported a fee-for-service arrangement for the inspection process, Lestitian said. As for what inspectors would do when the worst properties are cleaned up, Lestitian said they'll be kept busy with periodic inspections to make sure renovated properties stay that way.

I agree with the city officials who say this is the most important ordinance passed in 2001 and with Lestitian, who said Hagerstown is 30 years behind the times on this score. As Hagerstown Police Chief Arthur Smith said, substandard housing attracts the wrong element to Hagerstown, an element the city has too much of already.

Do landlords really fear the $45-per-unit annual fee, which they can pass along to tenants? I doubt it, but I would bet that some are cringing at the potential cost of bringing up to code buildings on which they've done little maintenance for years.

Lestitian has given me examples of compromises he's offered the landlord group members on code issues. He says despite the referendum drive he'll still work with them.

But there's a difference between a compromise and a retreat. And unless city residents are willing to ignore the damage substandard rental housing does to the city's tax base and its quality of life, they must back Lestitian's drive to clean it up.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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