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Concessions on rental law ought to be last ones made

May 21, 2003

Next week the Hagerstown City Council will vote on a proposal to water down a new program designed to upgrade rental property in the city. Hagerstown officials have been generous in responding to landlords' concerns, but this should be the last package of concessions made.

The ordinance was proposed because of the deteriorating condition of many of the city's 8,000 rental units.

In addition to contributing to the stagnation of the city's property-tax base, Police Chief Arthur Smith said that run-down housing gives criminals the impression that Hagerstown is a city where anything goes, whether it's legal or not.

The landlords' association fought the proposal with a petition, but fell 39 signatures short. The group asked for a judicial review of the counting process, but has said it would drop that if the city bends on a few of the ordinance's points. The proposed changes include:

- The cost of an inspection would be cut from the $45 proposed to $39.

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- The first inspection of a unit would not occur until there's a turnover in tenants, as opposed to an initial inspection that would have been done of all units in the city.

- Future inspections would occur when there's turnover in tenants, but not more frequently than every three years.

- There would be a "sunset clause" that would allow the ordinance to expire after five years unless it's renewed.

Allan Johnson, president of the landlord association, said that although his group still opposes the idea, "we feel good that we have worked out a good plan."

In reality, if this passes the landlords will have have received a great gift, and unlike owners of rental property in Rockville, Annapolis and even Cumberland, they won't face annual inspections of their buildings.

Our only hope is that after this ordinance takes effect, the city can revisit it in the future and give it enough teeth to do the job. Until then, we'll settle for half a loaf and hope future councils can beef up this much-needed law.

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