Plan to expand landlord bill likely to fail

Balto. County program in five east-side areas

Council to vote on issue tonight

Agency failed at running pilot phase, critics say

November 17, 2003|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

A bill to extend Baltimore County's rental registration program to several Towson neighborhoods appears likely to fail at tonight's County Council meeting, in part because members believe the permits department has failed to properly administer the program in east-side communities.

The law, designed to prevent neighborhood decline, was passed 18 months ago. Since then, the Department of Permits and Development Management has registered 370 of the estimated 1,400 rental properties in the five east-side neighborhoods in the pilot program.

The department advertised the program in local newspapers in those communities, but council members said that they were dismayed to learn that it did not notify residents by mail. As a result, members said at last week's council work session that they fear the validity of a study assessing the program's effectiveness will be compromised.

"They just dropped the ball," said Councilman John A. Olszewski Sr., a Dundalk Democrat who co-sponsored the original bill.

Permits and Development Management Director Timothy M. Kotroco said the law requires the department to compile a list of the addresses in the study area, which it did. But it does not specify that the department send notices to those addresses.

Councilman Vincent J. Gardina, a Perry Hall-Towson Democrat who co-sponsored the original bill and is pushing for expansion, said he and Olszewski made clear to the department that they wanted notices mailed. Kotroco said if they had an agreement with his predecessor, Arnold Jablon, who left the department last summer, he didn't know about it.

Kotroco said his staff is hard-pressed to keep up with the demands of the five neighborhoods in the pilot program. The only way he could handle five more, he said, is if no landlords came forward to register.

"There's no way I could handle it with my current staff," he said. The county has 30 code enforcement inspectors, none of whom is assigned exclusively to the registration program.

But Gardina said the threat posed by a glut of rental properties is too great to wait, so he is pushing to expand the program to five neighborhoods in the Towson-Loch Raven area.

"These communities are on the brink of being saved or not being saved," Gardina said. "I don't think we can wait another year for a report from a bill that PDM never properly enforced in the first place."

Proponents of rental registration say that requiring landlords to apply for a county license and agree to code enforcement inspections will force owners to maintain their properties and prevent the deterioration of neighborhoods.

Landlords, the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors and a group of renters, mostly current and former Towson University students, argued at the work session that the requirements are onerous and will push up rents and force tenants out of their homes.

After a lengthy debate last year, proponents on the council scaled back their effort to establish a countywide program and won support for a pilot program on the east side.

The council's bill required the county to prepare a report after the system had been in place for two years to determine its effectiveness and to decide whether the program should be expanded beyond the five original communities: Colgate, Hawthorne Park, Middlesex, Old Dundalk and St. Helena.

Gardina wants to add Burkleigh Square, Oakley Manor, Ridgely Manor, Rodgers Forge and Towson Manor.

But most councilmen said last week that this is the wrong time for an expansion.

"I want to see how this is working before we keep going with it," said Councilman Joseph Bartenfelder, a Fullerton Democrat.

Kotroco said that when landlords have registered - either voluntarily or when the department becomes aware of them through code enforcement sweeps - the county has been successful in improving living conditions and the appearance of properties.

"The [program] is a good idea, and it works," Kotroco said. "I'm happy to do it as long as I have appropriate staffing."

Although County Executive James T. Smith Jr. has made revitalizing older neighborhoods a centerpiece of his administration, his spokesman, Damian O'Doherty, said the executive could not commit to providing more code enforcement staff in next year's budget.

"There's a host of priorities, and these are very lean budget years," O'Doherty said. "We'll have to look at the big picture."

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