Neglectful landlords hit by penalties Baltimore County targets those with rent-subsidy tenants

'A real wake-up call'

Public money cut off when units fail to meet standards

November 03, 1996|By Ronnie Greene | Ronnie Greene,SUN STAFF

Armed with new powers and aiming to polish its $21 million-a-year rent-subsidy program, Baltimore County is shutting off public cash for landlords whose properties plunge into disrepair.

Since March, the county has sanctioned 15 landlords whose units were beset by such problems as roaches, poor plumbing and deteriorating roofs.

The punishment comes with a financial lever: The landlord receives no new taxpayer-bankrolled rentals until the property is improved.

"It's been a real wake-up call," said Lois Cramer, administrator of the county housing office.

The penalties are part of a county effort to shore up an old federal housing program -- called Section 8 -- that links financially strapped families with landlords willing to rent to them.

Baltimore County has no stand-alone public housing projects but is home to roughly 4,500 families who receive housing aid averaging $374 a month. That money is funneled directly to the landlords.

It adds up to $21 million a year among 625 landlords.

Now, under new federal housing rules, county officials want to ensure that the private properties are in good shape before more public checks go out.

On paper, it's simple: If 50 percent or more of a complex's Section 8 apartments fail an inspection, the landlord gets no new public-assistance tenants there.

Any Section 8 tenants in the landlord's units at the time are allowed to remain.

Similar reforms are being instituted throughout the nation as part of a federal housing effort aimed at eliminating abuse of rent subsidies. It began in October 1995, when the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development adopted regulations that put accountability in the hands of landlords -- and tenants.

Locally, the housing effort coincides with County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger's push to revive aging neighborhoods.

"If you look at the history of why people in this country are so upset about subsidized housing, it's because government many years ago did a poor job, which allowed for crime, poverty and deplorable living conditions," he said.

"And the only way to turn that around is to do what we're doing now and hold the landlords accountable for maintaining the properties."

Local housing authorities have always had the ability to inspect Section 8 units and issue citations, but the new rules give local officials more enforcement power.

"Before, we could sanction a particular unit," Cramer said. "Now, the real club is we can sanction the whole property. And property owners are coming forth and making changes that improve the whole community."

William F. Tamburrino, director of HUD's Maryland Office of Public Housing, said, "If a landlord has a history of not complying with housing quality standards, then the housing authority could determine, 'Hey, you're a bad landlord. We don't want to do business with you.' "

Tenants are feeling the heat, too.

"If there is clear evidence the family is abusing the program, the housing agency may determine the family is no longer eligible," Tamburrino said. "In the past, that responsibility largely rested on landlords."

County 'out in front'

Overall, he said, Baltimore County has a "pretty clear history of being out in front of these issues."

The county's crackdown began March 5, when it cut off cash to the owner of two Woodlawn complexes, Mosby Mill Townhouses and Featherbed Lane Apartments. The complexes, like others in the county, sprinkle subsidized tenants among other residents.

At Mosby Mill, where every subsidized apartment failed, an inspection found roaches, poor plumbing, lack of heat, faulty smoke detectors, abandoned vehicles and trash, said Lance Glaeser, inspection supervisor.

The county barred the owner, P&S Realty Co. of Baltimore, from taking in new Section 8 tenants.

P&S is receiving public money again, after an overhaul that included an increase in the maintenance staff, regular trash removal, evictions of problem tenants and extermination of vermin.

Last week, Mosby Mill was a different place from the one photographed during earlier inspections. Graffiti had been painted over, lawns trimmed, broken windows replaced and trash removed.

'Positive ending'

Thomas Scherr, manager of P&S, recalled his first reaction when the county came to him: "To be quite honest, I got defensive.

"Then I went and looked at it objectively and had to agree with a lot of things they cited. And took immediate action. In retrospect, it ends up being a positive ending."

At Featherbed Lane Apartments, county inspectors found that 88 percent of the subsidized units failed to meet minimum standards.

Glaeser listed the problems as roaches, trash, faulty plumbing and inoperable smoke detectors. In March, the county cut off public tenants for the owner -- P&S again, the second time it had been penalized that month.

As at Mosby Mill, P&S "began addressing the issues," Cramer said. That complex, too, was returned to the Section 8 program.

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