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Havre de Grace City Council hears from public on rental ordinance

Several landlords and one tenant spoke against the proposed new rental property ordinance during Monday's Havre de Grace City Council hearing.

Some landlords wondered why the law is necessary and urged council members to talk more with them and explain what they are trying to achieve.

Gunther Hirsch, former city mayor and the namesake of the city hall building, said the original landlord bill did nothing except create a lot of bureaucracy.

He said any bill like this is "punitive" for the landlord and noted the economy is already making business difficult.

"It is very hard to be a landlord in any case," he said.

Hirsch said many condominiums in the city will soon be rentals, adding even more landlords.

"I ask you not to erect new walls," he said. "Don't erect any new walls in Havre de Grace to make it [harder] for landlords to operate."

Other members of Hirsch's family, which has many rental properties in the city, also spoke.

Gary Getz, of Bourbon Street, said he is not sure of the purpose of the ordinance.

"If one of the purposes is to increase the quality of the apartments and increase better level of tenant, I think the market is basically going to take care of that for us and we won't need bureaucracy to do that," Getz said.

Getz said many BRAC-related employees have been moving from Fort Monmouth and they have been good renters.

"It's real. There are more people moving in every day. I know in my family's apartments, there are new immigrants to the area from New Jersey," he said. "The level of income from the average person at [Aberdeen Proving Ground] is significantly higher than it used to be and as defense contractors move to the area, that's going to continue."

Getz said the only construction that has any traction in Havre de Grace is apartment buildings.

"Apartments in Havre de Grace are in demand, and the landlords are going to respond on their own to fight for the new tenants that are coming in," he said. "I think that really the supply and demand, and good old capitalism will really take care of this one issue, and if we just leave well enough alone and don't add more bureaucracy and fees, we'll be better off."

Mediate disputes, landlord says

Mary Lynn Snyder, of Bourbon Street, another city landlord, said she thinks the city's three code enforcement officers can handle the problems the ordinance tries to address.

"When you have the rental process that's really where a lot of your problem is, is who they rent to," Snyder said. "[The code enforcement officers are] ample to sit down and work with the ones that are not doing their job."

Snyder said the ordinance would force landlords to pass on its fees to their tenants, many of whom are already living on limited incomes.

She said she wished the council members had brought up their problems to landlords earlier.

"I certainly wish they had come to some of us and sat down and said, 'We need help. We're not getting what we want out of this commission,'" she said. "None of us have had any chance to have any input except this tonight. Shame on you."

Tenants not involved

Mary Helen Cayer, of Chesapeake Drive, spoke on behalf of tenants. She said she was the sole tenant on the now-defunct landlord-tenant commission.

"It didn't take long to realize tenants didn't want to be part of these things because of fear," she said. "They don't want to complain because their rents will go up."

Cayer, who said five other tenants were sitting in the council chambers, countered the arguments of the landlords who were blaming conditions on tenants.

"Who gets evicted? The tenant," she said. "What they live in is dangerous, it is deplorable, it is something we shouldn't allow. The tenants shouldn't be evicted. They should be given a month's rent free at the cost of that landlord."

County actions

Harford County Councilman Dion Guthrie, who attended the city council meeting, said the county council appointed a task force about a month ago to study the livability code.

"We're trying to handle the same problem on the Harford County level," Guthrie said.

He said in his district, the Joppatowne and Edgewood area, some houses are being sold for as low as $20,000, while condominiums that were selling for $120,000 several years ago are now being sold for $6,000.

"It's the people that don't keep their properties up and are renting them out," Guthrie said. "In this economy we're having that because people can't sell their properties and are renting them out. We're getting renters where we never had renters before."

"The biggest problem they've had in the housing department is enforceability. They don't have enough teeth in that livability code to go out … and enforce absentee landlords. That's the problem we are also having," Guthrie continued. "The code we're developing certainly is not going to have any effect on any properties that are being maintained the way they're supposed to."

The only reason for the relatively small fee the county is proposing for registration of properties is to get landlords to actually sign up, he said.

"Without the money, they won't register," he said.

Council divided on issue

Council President Bill Martin explained the ordinance did not "just come out of nowhere," but from the suspension of the old rental ordinance, which was considered cumbersome.

"This ordinance kind of fell into the administrative committee lap and we had to deal with it," he said, explaining the ordinance gives the city more teeth to deal with failing properties.

"We had a landlord in mind a lot of times for this," Martin continued. "Believe me, I really designed this to help the landlord…If it was up to me, I'd rather have no fee."

He asked how the city can justify using taxpayer money to help people regulate their business, and said he was willing to reconsider the fee.

Martin encouraged residents to attend a Nov. 28 work session on the issue.

He also said the fee is only $12 per year, or $1 per month, and other activities, such as fishing, similarly require a license.

"I believe this is a good license; I believe it's going to work," he said. "The reason the other ordinance didn't work is it had no teeth to it and it was free."

Councilman Fred Cullum said the city has no intention of doing inspections, and they are expected to be complaint-driven.

"The bottom line of the purpose is to protect property values and to protect tenants that have no choice but to rent properties in the city of Havre de Grace," Cullum said. "I'm on the fence with this because I'm not 100 percent sold that we need to do it. I wasn't 100 percent sold the first time we went to do it."

Councilman Jim Miller criticized the ordinance.

"This law that they put together here doesn't do anything to improve anything, except it collects $12," he said.

Mayor weighs in

Mayor Wayne Dougherty vehemently disagreed with the claim that the code enforcement officers are sufficient to handle rental properties.

He said the city has three people assigned to do code enforcement, one of whom also does inspections of the city's 102 stormwater management ponds.

"This city could not afford the fines [Maryland Department of the Environment] passes down," Dougherty said regarding the other inspections the code enforcement officers have to perform. "The officers are not out looking at trees."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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