County Councilman Charles C. Feaga plans to introduce a bill tomorrow that would prevent tenants from profiting from a landlord's mistake.
The 5th District Republican said he heard from many worried landlords after a court last February ordered a Woodbine couple to return$18,000 in rent to their tenants because the couple had failed to obtain a $40 permit to rent their house.
The tenants of the home, on learning their landlords had no permit, had sued for the return of 18 months of rent payments, and CircuitCourt Judge James B. Dudley, ordered the landlords to repay the money.
"I really had a lot of calls from people out here in the county, saying, 'My God, this is ridiculous. We didn't know we had to have a license to rent a house that we've been renting for years,' " said Feaga, the western county representative.
His bill will state specifically that a landlord's failure to obtain a renter's permit does not entitle tenants to demand a refund of paid rent.
On the books since 1964, the license law requires landlords to obtain a $40, two-year permit for all rental dwellings. Once the permit application is filed, a county housing inspector visits the property to assure that basic housing standards are met.
Feaga's bill would not exempt landlords from obtaining permits or from paying county fines if their property is unlicensed.
Under the county code, the maximum penalty fornot having a rental permit is a $250 civil citation.
In Feaga's opinion, the lawsuit brought by tenants Tammy and Michael Citaramanis against their landlords, Eustace and Portia Hallowell, was an abuse of the county law.
"To say, 'We're going to move out, and we want our rent back because we know you don't have a license to rent' -- that's taking advantage of a situation," Feaga said of the Citaramanis' lawsuit.
Many county landlords, like the Hallowells, who just rentone or two properties, never knew of the permit requirement, Feaga said.
The councilman decided to review the permit law after learning of Dudley's ruling that the Hallowells' failure to obtain a permit for their three-bedroom town house in Columbia invalidated the standard lease contract the tenants had signed.
The couple have said they were not aware of the requirement and that the Citaramanises, both attorneys, asked about the license only when they moved out.
Dudley based his decision on a 1986 Baltimore City case, which determined that landlords cannot profit from illegal contracts with their tenants.
After The Howard County Sun published a story about the Citaramanises' lawsuit April 22, the county's permit office received more than 300 requests for rental property permits in one week. The department typically receives seven to 10 permit applications in a week.
The Hallowells are appealing to the Court of Special Appels, the state's intermediate appellate court. The case is scheduled to be argued in April.