Rental assurance

December 28, 2007

Among the more familiar beefs of community associations in Baltimore County is the one about the negligent landlord who allows a single-family home that's been chopped up into multiple rental units to slowly deteriorate. Most landlords don't do this, of course, but there are always the few who choose short-term profit over their responsibility to their tenants and to the local community.

That's why the Baltimore County Council's recent decision to broaden the county's 5-year-old rental registration and inspection program is a good one. The initial pilot program has helped crack down on illegal apartment conversions and improved the quality of life for dozens of families in selected communities. There's no reason why the rest of the county should not receive the same benefit.

Such inspections can detect and eliminate unacceptable hazards such as faulty wiring, overcrowding or other code violations. And while landlords may balk at the cost of regular inspections, it's the price that must be paid to protect not only their tenants but neighborhood property values as well.

Nevertheless, the council is also taking something of a risk with its decision to have private contractors, and not county employees, perform these inspections. That's not how the pilot program was conducted, and while it may save the county money, there's some question as to whether it will produce the needed results.

Admittedly, the county's existing registration and inspection program ran into some problems. The county auditor criticized it last year for inconsistency and a lack of enforcement. But that may have been primarily the result of a shortage of inspectors.

Even much of the more egregious behavior uncovered by the auditor (failure to collect fees, the granting of licenses without inspections, lack of follow-up) seems typical of what happens when a small group of workers is given a huge task but not the resources to accomplish it. Sloppiness and negligence are par for the course.

Will a private contractor paid by a landlord do a better job than an overburdened but independent government employee? County residents will have to wait and see. It's entirely possible - but it would also be wise to inspect the work of the inspectors next year and find out for sure.

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