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Council is right to explore curb on growth of rentals

April 20, 2004

Not too long ago the Hagerstown City Council wanted the power to annex more property along the city's boundaries, because its members seemed to fear that the city wouldn't get its share of new growth.

Now some members are looking at a possible moratorium on construction, saying they worry that too much too soon will overwhelm the city's ability to deliver services.

Is there a contradiction here? Not if what the council is talking about is a plan to curb the growth of new rental developments. The city has plenty of those already, although putting curbs on them now will be more difficult than wishing it were so.

Who says there's too much rental housing? The Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, which in the mid-1990s did a community profile of Hagers-town and found that housing here was 60 percent rental and 40 percent owner-occupied.

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That's just the opposite of what the experts feel it should be, for a variety of reasons. People who own the property in which they live have an investment to protect, as opposed to renters who can flee a problem neighborhood as soon as the lease is up.

Renters are also less likely to spend money improving their dwellings. That's because even assuming the landlord allows any work to be done, tenants can't take the improvements along when they leave.

City officials say the problem they're facing now is due to the fact that in the 1980s, in an effort to spur more construction, the city loosened its zoning ordinance.

Now that development has been curtailed in other counties, it's coming here and much of what is being proposed is rentals or townhouses, which are often converted to rentals.

It shouldn't take a year to review the existing zoning ordinance to determine its worst features and make adjustments quickly.

Trying to rewrite the entire ordinance is a long-term project, when what the city government needs now is something to prevent the mistakes of the past from becoming the dysfunctional community of the future.

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