City eyeing creation of rental code

Main Street spruce-up leads to closer look at neglected housing

Plan is to `be aggressive'

Mayor says rules could spur higher `livability' standard

July 14, 1999|By Melody Simmons | Melody Simmons,SUN STAFF

Buoyed by a state-sponsored push to spruce up Main Street, Westminster's Common Council is considering the need to create the city's first housing code for rental units, officials said yesterday.

The law would use the county's "livability code" as a model, said Damian L. Halstad, president of the council.

"I am glad the city is willing to get involved and be aggressive in a housing code," Halstad said.

Halstad and Councilman Gregory Pecoraro plan to study whether the city needs its own housing code. They plan to make recommendations to the council this fall, Pecoraro said.

"It would be a big step for us," he said. "It's a major new power the city is taking on. We certainly would have to staff up for it, to hire at least one inspector and make budget priorities for it. It's not a simple issue -- there are a lot of moving parts to it."

Halstad said city officials have no idea how many rental units exist in Westminster because landlords are not required to register. With a housing code, city officials could set standards, with state approval, and hire an inspector for enforcement.

Since 1989, all Carroll County rental units have been covered by the county's "livability code," enforced by one housing inspector whose territory includes the entire county.

The issue surfaced in Westminster after council members Monday night debated -- then passed -- a proposal to seek the court-ordered demolition of a brick apartment house at 110 E. Main St. Raw sewage from a broken pipe oozed from the building onto the sidewalk and killed a tree along the historic downtown street.

The building had been inspected by the county's housing inspector, Greg Keller, who found violations ranging from electrical to fire safety and plumbing. Repairs were ordered but never made, Keller said.

Keller said the building has no tenants.

Last month, Westminster's Main Street, where many of the rental units are located, was named one of seven areas in Maryland targeted for historical and commercial revitalization by the state's Department of Housing and Community Development. The program, called Main Street Maryland, is part of a national push to revitalize historic areas in the United States. That effort has resulted in investment of more than $7 billion in 1,400 communities since 1977.

By September, a plan is expected to be presented to the Common Council outlining how city officials can link state and national preservation experts with architects to help revitalize local businesses and reshape Main Street's image.

Westminster Mayor Kenneth A. Yowan said a new city housing code would help push those revitalization efforts "west a bit" toward Pennsylvania Avenue. The street is home to numerous rental units.

Yowan said having a separate city housing code would lead to higher standards. As a councilman in the mid-1980s, Yowan said, he explored establishing a local code, but that effort was rejected.

"It would not necessarily be something that would sail through 100 percent," Yowan said. "We're in a pretty conservative county here, and if you have a housing code, you would have the government telling the homeowner how they should take care of their property.

"But it raises the standards for everybody," he added. "A majority of people want their neighborhoods to look nice and be clean."

Yowan said that because federally subsidized rental units are inspected on a regular basis, "it's not the poorest of people hurting, it's the level above that where the people don't have a lot of money and are spending a good portion of their income on rent."

Most of the neglect, he said, can be blamed on absentee landlords.

"They are taking out their profits and not putting anything back," Yowan said.

Pub Date: 7/14/99

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