Houses to be upgraded, and people displaced

Unintended fallout of law could leave renters homeless

August 16, 2008|By Kevin Rector | Kevin Rector,Sun reporter

Some of the elderly, disabled and low-income tenants renting about two dozen houses in Essex and Middle River say they fear becoming homeless after their new landlord gave them 30 days to vacate homes that some have occupied for decades.

"We're in very bad straits right now, and I'm scared to death," said Kimberly Briggs of Essex, a disabled resident who has lived in one of the houses for more than eight years. "I don't know what to do."

The notices are an early sign, said Baltimore County Councilman Joseph Bartenfelder, of the "unforeseen circumstances" caused by the rental-property registration and compliance bill that the council passed in December. It requires landlords to have their rental properties inspected to prove they comply with housing standards.

"This is one example that has come to light, but the other examples are going to pop up soon all over Baltimore County," said Bartenfelder, who represents the district where the homes are located.

Tenants said they have learned to live with mold, ceiling leaks and other problems because their previous landlords had kept their rents low. But in June, the houses were sold and ordered to be vacated for renovations because of the compliance law.

Susan Gillham, a property manager handling some of the houses, said some tenants might be able to move back, but "once the renovations are done on these places, the rent has to go up."

The rents for the homes ranged from $300 to $700 a month, according to the longtime owners, Daniel and Nancy Hubers, well below the average rent for homes in the area.

The Huberses said they sold the 23 homes to Progressive Property of Dundalk on June 20. Tenants said they then received notices from Progressive that they had until Aug. 31 to vacate their homes. None of the tenants had leases, so the law required only 30 days' notice to vacate.

Many of the houses are small, one-story, single-family brick buildings. They are scattered throughout Essex, Middle River and other areas on the county's east side.

About 30 tenants showed up at a meeting last week at the Essex library to share their concerns with Bartenfelder and a representative from County Executive James T. Smith Jr.'s office. There, Bartenfelder apologized for the rental-property bill, which originally had a compliance deadline of July 1. On Aug. 4, the council extended the deadline to Jan. 1. Bartenfelder voted against the bill in December and voted for the extension last week.

Nancy M. Hubers, a former state delegate, said the sale of the properties was "a business and personal decision" and would not comment on the rental compliance bill. Her husband, Daniel, who is 90 years old, said, "I just couldn't do it anymore."

Rob Griffin, a manager with Progressive Property of Dundalk, said the compliance bill "had a huge role in the transaction of the properties."

Gillham said the notices were issued because most of the homes are in such bad condition that bringing them into compliance will require them to be vacant.

"People can't live in them when these renovations are being done," Gillham said. "They all need new roofs, all-new windows, new drainage tiles in the basements."

"When I moved in, the floor in the bathroom was crashing into my basement," said Ruth Albrecht, who has lived in one of the homes in the Middleborough neighborhood for almost 11 years.

"I've got mold in my house, and my roof has been leaking since I lived here," said Doris Doyle, who has lived in her home on Wynbrook Road for almost two years. "I always joke that I've got a rooftop swimming pool."

Nancy Hubers said she "had no idea that these new owners were going to do what they did."

Hubers said she and her husband had responded to complaints from tenants but that "nobody's even called" with problems.

Albrecht said she called often and then spent weeks waiting for repairs.

Other tenants said they didn't call for repairs because they didn't want their rents to increase.

The Huberses were "fine" landlords, Doyle said, because "they didn't fix nothing, but they never raised your rent." Doyle said she was willing to make that trade-off because she broke her neck in 2001 and has been unable to work since.

Thelma McNeil, who has lived in one of the Huberses' homes in Middleborough for 45 years, said they are "wonderful people" who kept her rent at $300 a month and always made timely repairs.

kevin.rector@baltsun.com

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