Code sought for owner-occupied houses

March 25, 1995|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,Sun Staff Writer

A committee directed by County Council Chairman Vincent J. Gardina has decided that Baltimore County should have a housing code for the exterior of owner-occupied homes.

The committee's recommendations will be forwarded to County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger III. Mr. Ruppersberger is on vacation and unavailable for comment.

The 13-member committee agreed at a meeting Wednesday in Towson that enforcement should be done carefully with wide discretion for inspectors and relatively low daily fines for noncompliance. The idea is to force exterior repairs on neighborhood eyesores without hurting cash-poor homeowners or having the code become a weapon in neighborhood disputes. Interiors would not be affected.

A weak housing code is better than none, said committee member Kirk Seaman, an attorney. "Even if they water it down, we'll be farther along that we are now," he said.

Adopting such a limited code might seem a small step in Baltimore City or in Anne Arundel County where housing codes long have existed, but a housing code always has been a big move in the county.

Decades of racially based political turmoil over housing, combined with resistance to any government intrusion prevented the county from establishing a housing agency or any housing code until the 1980s. In 1987, the state forced a rental-only "livability code" on the county and created a department to administer federally funded housing programs.

That opposition to government intrusion and the aim of improving the appearance of houses were factors in limiting the committee recommendation to an exterior-only housing code, Mr. Gardina said. The county's rental code covers interior and exterior.

A code for owner-occupied homes is needed, Mr. Gardina and community leaders say, because the county has become more urban and older neighborhoods are pressured by economic decline and blight. To prevent deterioration in older neighborhoods, the county has begun a Community Conservation program.

P. David Fields, community conservation director, said having a code for owner-occupied houses "is tremendously important" -- if the county doesn't use it to make life harder for elderly homeowners or others who can't pay for repairs. Keeping a small fund for such work and involving community groups could help, he said.

Improving the image of older neighborhoods is much harder if houses are poorly kept and have obvious problems such as peeling paint, missing siding and rotting wood, officials said.

Now, the county can't do anything about such eyesores.

Mr. Gardina said a house in Aero Acres in his eastern district prompted him to act.

"It's unbelievable," he said, "There's no siding left; it's down to the inside sheathing on the outside." He said the house has a leaking roof, a rotting porch and has suffered from the owner's habit of collecting junk and rodent infestation. The county has sent health inspectors, but has no legal way to require improvements.

An example of the problem occurred last year in Lansdowne, where an elderly woman had given her dilapidated, leaky rowhouse over to her 54 cats and two dogs, while she lived on the front porch. County inspectors evicted a family renting the house next door because of sewage water leaking through the wall, but could not require improvements in the elderly woman's house because it was owner-occupied.

Mr. Gardina's committee is one of two he initiated in an attempt to develop a stronger council role in initiating policy. The other committee, headed by lawyer Leslie Pittler, is studying zoning law revisions.

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