Officials agree to stricter policing of rental code

September 10, 1995|By Mary Gail Hare and Kerry O'Rourke | Mary Gail Hare and Kerry O'Rourke,Sun Staff Writers

Carroll Commissioners bowed to pressure from town mayors Friday and announced a change in county policy to allow neighbors and town officials to make complaints concerning the Minimum Livability Code, a law enacted in 1988 to protect residents of rental housing.

The change loosens restrictions that had been unwritten policy for about five years.

The commissioners issued their policy -- the first time it has been in writing -- at a press conference Friday morning.

"It is not a question of who demanded and who gave in," said Commissioner W. Benjamin Brown. "The board has agreed to sign our names to a policy, which lives up to the spirit of the Minimum Livability Code."

New Windsor Mayor Jack A. Gullo Jr. charged last winter that the commissioners were not enforcing the code.

He said many rental units in the town were in poor condition and were not being inspected thoroughly by the county.

At the time, county officials would not allow town officials to lodge complaints.

They said only tenants or landlords could complain.

The code, which establishes minimum standards for residential rental properties to ensure they are safe, does not place restrictions on who may make complaints. But the previous board of commissioners had followed a practice of allowing only tenants, landlords or government agencies to complain.

Commissioners Donald I. Dell and Richard T. Yates also had said they opposed allowing neighbors or town officials to make complaints.

Mr. Dell said complete inspections in response to every complaint would be unfair to property owners and impossible with existing staffing. It would be like living in a totalitarian state, he said.

"They took all the rights away in Russia, and look what happened," Mr. Dell said two months ago.

"I don't want us snooping around houses," Mr. Yates said.

In their policy statement Friday, commissioners refused to explain the shift, other than to say they were clarifying a misunderstood policy.

Mr. Dell defended the county's code enforcement. Of 92 complaints logged this year, 55 have been settled, he said.

"I still don't think this is a great idea," he said of the change. "It is an avenue for neighborhood complaints that the county has to get in the middle of. It is spite work."

Mr. Yates and Mr. Dell suggested the towns adopt and enforce their own codes.

Mayor Gullo of New Windsor said he was glad the issue was resolved, but said: "I wish it had come quicker. The commissioners have revised the policy and taken great strides to carry out the spirit of the law. I am hoping the new policy is all that is necessary."

The county's only inspector, Greg Keller, helped write the code and handles all complaints -- about nine per day.

When Mr. Gullo made his original request, Commissioner Brown said increasing inspections would be too expensive.

The mayor insisted that the county was not enforcing its own law and took his campaign to the media.

Mayors from the county's other towns joined the effort.

Karen K. Blandford, administrator of the Westminster Office of Housing, Community Development and Personnel, said she worries that word already may have gotten out that Carroll does not enforce its code.

She said she has noticed more interest in local properties from out-of-town buyers.

"All of a sudden, there are a lot of out-of-town buyers who want to come in and milk properties," Ms. Blandford said. "We will attract in vestors that will not reinvest in their properties. We don't need that."

Too often low-income tenants are afraid they would be evicted by their landlords if they complained, she said.

A 1992 Carroll County Housing Study by Legg Mason Realty Group Inc. in Baltimore showed that many county residents live in substandard housing.

The study found that 30 percent of the county's housing, or 13,200 units, needed repair. About 73 percent of such homes were occupied by renters.

Legg Mason determined that a house needed repairs if it had peeling paint, cracks in walls, holes in floors, frequently blown circuit breakers and a leaking roof.

The study, which estimated Carroll had 43,665 households, also found that 500 lacked plumbing, two-thirds of which were renters.

The Carroll County Bureau of Permits and Inspections logged 982 Livability Code complaints from 1989, when the law was enacted, through Aug. 6, said Mike Maring, deputy code official.

On Wednesday, he said 176 cases, or 18 percent, remained open, including six complaints logged in 1990.

On Thursday, he said a computer check showed those six cases had been closed.

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