Bill is enacted to let city fine 'slumlords' Measure sent to governor limits maximum to $1,000

April 04, 1997|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

The General Assembly gave final approval yesterday to legislation that will allow the Baltimore Housing Authority to get tougher on city "slumlords."

Under two bills now awaiting the governor's signature, city housing inspectors will be able to issue civil citations with fines for housing code violations -- the same way police officers write traffic tickets.

The legislation enables the City Council to set the amount of the fines, but limits the maximum penalty to $1,000.

"The gist of the whole thing was to make sure the law had some teeth," said Sen. Perry Sfikas, the Baltimore Democrat who sponsored the bills.

City community leaders hailed the legislation as a way to resolve housing cases more quickly and to help prevent property owners from skirting their responsibilities in maintaining properties.

"I don't think there is a magic bullet," said Anne Blumenberg, director of the Community Law Center, which provides legal counsel and representation for community groups. "But thank heaven for this. It will be more efficient than the current process."

As of now, the Housing Authority can issue code violation notices that don't include fines. For any penalty to be assessed against a property owner, the case has to go to court -- a process that could take a year because of the authority's lengthy review process. And it can take as long as two years or more for a resolution.

Critics of the current system say it sometimes ends with no resolution at all because fines for housing code violations -- except those involving trash -- are not spelled out in the law.

Under the legislation approved yesterday, property owners could immediately be cited and fined for violations. They could pay the fine or appeal in court.

The new process also will make it easier to collect fines from property owners because the citations are civil notices -- allowing the city to take such action as garnishing a person's wages to get the money.

The current system imposes criminal penalties on a property owner. Those penalties allow for liens against the property where the violation occurred, but do not permit the city to collect money from other financial sources the owner may have.

"We now have another piece in our arsenal," said Daniel P. Henson III, the city housing commissioner. "It's another tool that will allow us to stem some of the grime issues that affect some of our communities."

As part of the fight against blight, Henson plans to hire about 30 new housing inspectors to help issue the new citations. He recently hired 18 inspectors, bringing the current total to about 70.

In addition, under a change made April 1 by Maryland Chief Judge Robert M. Bell, District Court Judge Charlotte M. Cooksey is handling city housing cases full time instead of part time. That will continue through the end of the year, to test the need for a full-time housing judge.

Pub Date: 4/04/97

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