Renters' loopholes targeted

April 06, 2009|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,

Prompted by complaints of irresponsible landlords and tenants, the Baltimore County Council is scheduled to vote Monday on strengthening the law governing rooming and boarding houses.

The proposal would eliminate the ability of absentee landlords to circumvent zoning regulations by creating limited liability corporations giving tenants a small share of ownership. Rules limiting the number of unrelated tenants in a house to two don't apply to owners. Residents say the practice is especially a problem in neighborhoods near college campuses.

The bill would also require renters who say they are exempt from occupancy limits because they are members of the same family to furnish information about their relationships. And it defines the difference between a resident and a guest, to keep visitors from taking up long-term residency.

Members of neighborhood associations near Towson University told council members last week about poorly maintained homes with numerous young tenants who, they say, have little regard for the surrounding communities.

"Investors are converting single-family homes into rentals with many more than two unrelated adults," said Paul Hartman, president of Aigburth Manor Association. "They are getting around occupancy limitations and doubling their investments at the expense of the community."

Council Chairman Joseph Bartenfelder said the bill is likely to win approval. "So many community groups want it," he said. "It should bring them some relief."

Carolyn B. Cook, vice president of the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors, said that the bill could be difficult to enforce and that it could have unintended consequences on fair housing practices. "You could get to the point where you are either violating the zoning code or the fair housing laws," she said.

Limited liability corporations "allow numerous unrelated people to live in the house and obfuscate the rental process," said G.T. Keplinger, vice president of the Burkleigh Square Community Association. "We have student ghettos sweeping through our neighborhoods."

The bill would require a person to own at least 51 percent of a house to claim ownership.

Keplinger provided officials with a neighborhood map, showing that about 50 percent of the community's 90 homes are rentals. "We have witnessed a shocking number of small homes turn into rentals," he said. "You have four and five people living in these illegal boarding houses."

Several residents said they have suffered reprisals, including telephone threats and vandalism, after complaining to authorities about errant tenants.

"We are not trying to stop kids from living peacefully in neighborhoods," said Timothy M. Kotroco, director of the county's Department of Permits and Management. "But we can't have them trying to take advantage of our code and their neighbors."

Rental properties are destabilizing the neighborhood, said Betsy Kahl, also of Burkleigh Square. "These investors are crowding young families looking for their first homes out of the market," she said.

Cook said the county has measures in place to address rental violations, including livability code enforcement and more neighborhood police patrols, particularly on weekend nights.

"During this economic crisis, and with all the foreclosures, there are many people going into homes with friends," Cook said. "Are you going to create undue hardships for them?"

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