'Significant update' to half-century-old Baltimore rental rules calls for licensing, inspecting all housing units

Baltimore landlords would face more inspections than ever under a proposal that city officials say would be “the most significant update” to rental housing regulations written half a century ago.

A City Council bill to be introduced Monday night calls for licensing and inspecting all residential rental properties in Baltimore, not just larger buildings with three or more units.

The bill, crafted by Councilman Bill Henry and housing officials, would expand oversight starting next year to include one- and two-unit rental properties. Those properties generate the most complaints, but have been exempted from mandatory inspections.

“We’re hoping to get a better quality of rentals across the city,” said Henry, a North Baltimore Democrat. “We have a disturbing number of people for whom affordable housing is synonymous with squalor.”

The legislation would establish three tiers of licenses. Compliant landlords who fix violations promptly and avoid the most serious problems would earn a license that requires an inspection only once every three years.

Problematic property owners with more code violations would receive licenses that require inspections annually or every two years.

All properties would begin with a two-year license.

“The three tiers of licensure depend on how well you maintain your property,” Henry said. “If you are a good landlord, you’ll get inspected less frequently. If you have problems and don’t take care of them, you can be moved to a one-year license.”

To expand inspections without burdening the city’s existing inspectors, landlords would have to pay for state-licensed home inspectors to determine whether their properties comply with city regulations — similar to the process used by Baltimore County.

Properties with nine or fewer units would have all of them inspected; apartment complexes with 10 or more would have certain percentages pass inspection.

The process would free up city inspectors to focus on the tens of thousands of complaints reported through 311 and emergencies such as lack of heat reported through 911.

The city rarely collects or enforces financial and legal penalties levied against landlords for violations. The Baltimore Sun reported last year that judges in the city’s landlord-tenant court routinely ruled in favor of property owners even when renters proved they were paying for unsafe living conditions.

The Sun found that other cities have more stringent inspection requirements and policies that distinguish between good and bad landlords.

Advocates for Baltimore tenants have long blamed substandard living conditions on lax judicial and government oversight of landlords. Fifty-three percent of homes in Baltimore are rentals, far above the national average of nearly 37 percent.

Current law in Baltimore requires properties of three or more units to be inspected every year to get and maintain “multi-family” dwelling licenses. There are about 6,000 such properties, city officials have said.

Those with fewer than three units are not required to be licensed or inspected. They’re inspected only when tenants complain of violations.

Most of the city’s 219,000 annual inspections are spurred by complaints. The city reported conducting nearly 219,000 inspections in fiscal year 2016, below its target of 280,000, due to a hiring freeze, according to the city’s budget. The target has been reduced to 240,000 in fiscal year 2018.

The city employs 93 housing inspectors at a budgeted salary cost of $4.7 million.

In many neighborhoods, properties of one or two units make up to 90 percent of homes, according to research by the Center for Community Progress commissioned by the city’s housing department.

A Maryland Judiciary task force of landlords, tenant groups and lawmakers has recommended expanding licensing “to cover the most problematic properties and landlords.” The Public Justice Center, a Maryland nonprofit whose lawyers represent low-income tenants in eviction hearings, also recommended that the city expand inspections and licensing, and suggested Baltimore County as one model. The Center for Community Progress also recommended expansion.

“By excluding these units from the licensing system, [Baltimore] is effectively permitting abusive landlords to operate in many of the city’s most distressed areas,” the Center for Community Progress said in a 161-page report. “In many neighborhoods the problem of substandard rental properties and exploitative landlords is as or more serious than the vacant property problem.”

After The Sun published its investigation in April, Mayor Catherine E. Pugh said her housing department was studying ways to improve oversight of landlords.

The Department of Housing and Community Development “has been working directly with Councilman Henry, legislative reference, the Mayor’s Office and Council President Jack Young in drafting the bill,” Pugh spokeswoman Tania Baker said. “This is the most significant update to rental licensing since the original law was passed in 1966.”

Representatives for the Maryland Multi-Housing Association, which represents large landlords, and the Public Justice Center could not be reached for comment.

Henry said both groups have been briefed on the bill.

The bill would also expand the reasons why city officials could deny, suspend or revoke rental dwelling licenses.

The Sun found that Baltimore has revoked only two licenses over the past dozen years.

Minneapolis, which uses a policy similar to Henry’s proposal, has revoked an average of 27 licenses per year.

ddonovan@baltsun.com

twitter.com/dougdonovan

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