Bill would open door to rental inspection

Balto. Co. plan aims for zoning violations

October 16, 2001|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

Responding to concerns about crowded rental homes - particularly around Towson University - and fears of declining property values, three Baltimore County councilmen introduced a bill last night that would give housing inspectors new powers to check units for zoning and safety violations.

The bill would require landlords of all but the largest rental properties to register them with the county. But with the county facing the prospect of dwindling revenues, the bill includes no funding for the dozens more code enforcement officers that regular inspections of the county's 125,000 rental units would require. Instead, the system would rely on complaints to catch those who don't comply voluntarily.

"It's not perfect, but it's a compromise considering the politics of it as well as the cost of it," said Councilman Vincent J. Gardina, a Perry Hall Democrat and sponsor of the bill.

Especially in older communities close to the city, homes are increasingly being converted into rental properties. In some cases, landlords divide homes into more units or rent to more roommates than zoning allows. In others, properties don't meet health and safety standards.

That can lead to declining property values and prompt owner-occupants to sell to landlords, making the problem worse, said Councilman Wayne M. Skinner, a Towson Republican and sponsor.

The county relies on complaints to find zoning and housing code violations, an enforcement mechanism that has often proved ineffective, Skinner said.

Under the new system, enforcement would still be complaint-based, but the county would have more effective tools in proving violations, said Arnold Jablon, director of development and permits management, the department charged with code enforcement.

The county would be required to make inspections during the licensing process. Now, inspectors can enter a dwelling only with the tenant's permission. That can be a hindrance in proving a violation.

Under the new bill, all the county would have to do is prove that the dwelling is being rented. Then, the landlord could be forced to get a license and allow inspectors inside, Jablon said.

In practice, the county will not seek out landlords who are renting without a license - such a task would overtax staffing, Jablon said. If all landlords voluntarily registered their properties, the county couldn't begin to license them all.

"If I get 95 percent voluntary compliance, I'm going to be dead," he said. "I'm really fully anticipating 90 percent will not be in voluntary compliance. But if somebody is renting to a student to help pay the bills and nobody cares, nobody complains and my tenant is a good kid, then the county will never know, and that's fine with me."

But even in cases where neighbors complain, there would be limits. Because of constitutional concerns, the bill is drafted to allow inspectors into properties only when a landlord applies for or renews a license. The licenses would be good for two years. When a license is valid, the county would be left with current enforcement mechanisms, Jablon said.

The bill also exempts major apartment complexes - anything with more than six units - from licensing requirements.

"It's a step, it's a start," said Councilman John A. Olszewski Sr., a Dundalk Democrat and sponsor of the bill.

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