Bill pushed to aid renters

Proposal would clarify landlord responsibilities for maintenance

March 29, 2006|By NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON | NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON,SUN REPORTER

Annapolis Mayor Ellen O. Moyer and two city council members are pushing for legislation they say would improve the safety of tenants by clarifying maintenance responsibilities in rental agreements. But some property owners oppose the change, saying it could exacerbate a shortage of affordable housing.

Aimed at landlords who fail to make major repairs, the proposal would make property owners responsible for the upkeep of major appliances, plumbing and heating systems. Landlords would also be required to give tenants a booklet outlining their rights and listing what agency they can contact regarding landlord-tenant disputes.

The bill was prompted by a 2004 carbon monoxide leak in the 100 block of Green St. that led to one resident being treated for carbon monoxide poisoning. Green Street Neighbors, a community group, rallied for the legislation to protect renters, some of whom might lack the wherewithal to deal with issues that arise in a rental agreement. Among the bill's supporters are the Historic Annapolis Foundation, the Ward One Residents Association and the Annapolis Business Association.

"We're trying to get to the issues that create maintenance problems," said Chuck Weikel, a member of Green Street Neighbors. "If you don't know who maintains the furnace or electrical system, that's a health-safety issue."

Weikel said that while the majority of property owners shoulder the cost of maintaining those systems, a few landlords have drawn up agreements that put the burden on their tenants.

For instance, a copy of a blank lease obtained by The Sun that lists King Properties as the landlord states that "the cost of all repairs to the heating plant and plumbing, such as stoppage of drain pipe & toilets, the bursting of pipes by freezing" falls to the tenant. The cost of repairing or replacing all appliances is also the responsibility of the tenant, according to the lease terms.

Ronald Hollander, head of King Properties, did not return phone calls yesterday seeking comment about the terms of leases. At a public hearing Monday, Hollander questioned the reasoning behind the proposed bill and said that contract law is not the purview of the city. Annual inspections are sufficient, he said.

"They are trying to pass a law that is already on the books; it's redundant," he said. "The city has good inspections every year. They check everything, and we have to do what they say."

While the inspection process is effective, the proposal would address repair issues that come up between inspections, said Michael Mallinoff, director of the city's Department of Neighborhood and Environmental Programs. With the changes, tenants would know that their landlords are responsible for making repairs to furnaces, boilers and major appliances, Mallinoff said.

Some property owners testified Monday that the bill would lead to fewer affordably priced apartments. In Annapolis, nearly 50 percent of all housing is renter-occupied.

Moyer countered that a city law that requires setting aside affordably priced units at new and renovated complexes would balance any losses caused by landlords taking units off the market because of the legislation.

Alderman Sam Shropshire, who represents Ward 7 and co-introduced the bill, said the main goal of the measure is to provide clarity. "People who rent should know exactly what they are getting into," he said. "All we're asking is that the responsibilities of both parties be delineated at the time the contracts are signed. It hasn't been clear in the past."

The bill moves back to the Housing and Human Welfare Committee for further review and could come up for a vote as early as next month.

nia.henderson@baltsun.com

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