Experts skeptical of rental registration

Baltimore County bill would be costly, hard to enforce, critics say

October 22, 2001|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

Community leaders and housing experts are skeptical that a bill that would require the licensing of most rental properties in Baltimore County would help root out zoning and safety violations or slow the transformation of older homes from owner-occupied to apartments.

The experiences of officials in other cities and counties where rental registration has been in effect for decades suggest that while the bill - introduced before the County Council last week - could help strengthen code enforcement efforts in some cases, it could also worsen the divide between landlords and the neighborhoods where they own property.

The bill, co-sponsored by Councilmen Vincent J. Gardina, John A. Olszewski Sr. and Wayne M. Skinner, would require landlords to seek a license for each unit they rent. They would pay a fee - probably about $25 a year - and agree to allow an inspection to determine code compliance, though the county would not always perform one. Licenses would be good for two years, and units could be inspected again at the time of renewal.

But the bill includes no money for the dozens of inspectors that officials estimate it would take to check the county's 125,000 rental units or for clerks to process the license applications.

The bill is based on the assumption that most landlords wouldn't register their properties, and that the units of those who did would not be inspected unless they were the subject of a complaint, said Arnold Jablon, director of the Department of Permits and Development Management.

Issuing licenses without performing inspections sounds like a tax, not a way to ensure safe, high-quality housing, said Stuart Meck, who oversaw the rental code in Oxford, Ohio, before becoming a senior researcher at the American Planning Association.

"When you have a system like this, there's got to be an inspection at some point that establishes the status of the property at the time the license is originally issued," he said. "Otherwise you place the legitimacy of the system in question because there's no enforcement going on."

But the county, facing declining revenues as the economy slows, doesn't have the money to hire the inspectors it would take to examine every rental property, much less determine if everyone who should be registered is, said Olszewski, a Dundalk Democrat.

Gary Adams, president of the Greater Rosedale Community Council, said that in his area, most of the trouble comes from large apartment complexes. The bill, however, exempts buildings with more than six units.

"I don't see where it accomplishes anything," Adams said. "You're doing the same thing right now with code enforcement. This looks like more of a revenue thing."

The bill was a response to complaints about crowded rental homes and fears of falling property values in neighborhoods where large, older homes are being converted into apartments.

Jablon has estimated that it would take 60 to 80 additional inspectors for regular inspections of all of rental units in the county.

But Montgomery County, which started licensing rental units in 1979, has 19 officers who handle responses to complaints and triennial inspections of 73,000 rental properties, some of which contain hundreds of apartments, said Jane M. Blackwell, a program specialist in the licensing unit for Montgomery's Department of Housing and Consumer Affairs.

Linda S. Bird, the housing code manager there, said that when Montgomery had a strict complaint-based system, like Baltimore County's, it alienated landlords and residents.

She said she frequently heard from homeowners that a code enforcement officer cited a rental property after neighbors complained about trash in the yard, but that the officer ignored trash at other houses because no one complained about them. Now, Bird said, Montgomery has code enforcers who check other properties on the street when they respond to complaints.

Patrick T. Welsh, president of the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors, said he could see the value of registering all rental properties because it would give planners a better idea of what communities are changing from owner-occupancy to rentals.

"One of the biggest problems the county is going to have is communicating to everyone that, gee, they need to register," he said. "In a very tax-strapped, revenue-strapped environment, I'm not sure Baltimore County is going to want to devote the resources to do this."

The proposed licensing system could also be a problem, Welsh said. The bill says that if a landlord has his license revoked for a property, any leases there would be automatically voided. That would run afoul of state law, he said.

Community leaders in older parts of the county have said code enforcement is vital and that they would appreciate anything the county can do to improve it.

The council is scheduled to vote on the bill next month.

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