Licensing program for rental units seems to work well

July 14, 2004|by GREGORY T. SIMMONS

Allan Johnson's group once led the charge against the City of Hagerstown.

After a year under new rules, however, the city's once-disputed Rental Licensing Program is working better than expected, said Johnson, president of the Landlords and Property Owners Association of Washington County.

"I think the registration program is going well," Johnson said.

Except for few exceptions - most of which involve the Hagerstown Housing Authority, which has its own inspection program - the city charges a $39 annual fee to license each rental home in the city. Each rental unit also must be inspected regularly by city code officers.

As the city's main program to deal with substandard rental properties, it collected about $315,000 in program fees between July 1, 2003, and June 30.


With that money, the city added three inspectors, bringing the total number of city inspectors to six, said John Lestitian, who is in charge of the city's code office. The code office also hired a licensing program manager.

Through June 30, the city licensed about 8,060 rental units, and its inspectors performed about 1,600 interior inspections and another 3,400 exterior inspections, said Amanda Miller, the licensing program manager.

Before the new rules went into effect, interior inspections were done only if someone complained. The city's only regular rental home inspection was of a building's exterior, Lestitian said, and it did not take place annually.

"It was a matter of staffing levels in years past," Lestitian said.

Both Lestitian and Johnson said they believed some things have improved as a result of the program.

"There is no doubt that the safety of our citizens ... has improved," Lestitian said.

He said 14 percent of the inspections - more than 200 units - had more than one safety violation, and he estimated that at least 20 units were closed for safety reasons.

Johnson, a landlord, said the program largely focuses on improving the worst properties, but "I think it has made me more aware of my properties."

Johnson said he is keeping better tabs on such things as smoke detectors, the number of electric outlets in each room and even room size, which is regulated by city code.

Johnson said landlords initially thought the program would prevent people from buying into the Hagerstown rental market, and even drive some existing landlords out. But now, he said, "I don't see it as a big deterrent."

There have been unforeseen benefits, Johnson said.

For one, "I can say to the prospective tenant it's city-inspected," Johnson said. "It gets their attention."

Another plus is that the city's inspection can be used almost as "an insurance policy."

A good inspection is like a snapshot of the property's condition, and if a tenant destroys part of a rental unit, the inspection may identify the problem.

The City Council discussed a handful of minor changes to the policy at Tuesday night's meeting, but Johnson said he's been happy with the way things turned out.

"I just hope that they continue to use this to deal with the situations that are bad. That's the most important thing," Johnson said.

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