A step toward safe, affordable housing in Baltimore

For fifty years, Baltimore has protected those who live in rental housing by requiring periodic inspections to ensure their homes meet the city’s standards for habitability — but only if the tenants happen to live in a building with more than two rental units. In a city like Baltimore, where the dominant form of housing — rental and otherwise — is the rowhouse, that means hundreds of thousands of people live in places that are only inspected if they are the subject of a complaint. And if the deficiency is a non-functioning smoke detector, faulty wiring or unsafe appliance, a tenant may not know about the problem until it’s too late.

That’s why we’re extremely heartened to see the collaboration between City Councilman Bill Henry and Mayor Catherine Pugh’s administration to extend Baltimore’s housing inspection program to cover all rental properties, not just larger ones. It’s a workable plan that will protect the public welfare, combat the deterioration of the city’s housing stock and help restore balance to the landlord-tenant relationship at minimal cost. It will not solve all the problems with Baltimore’s rental housing, but it’s a good start.

Legislation Mr. Henry plans to introduce today would set up a tiered system of inspections that rewards landlords who quickly address any problems that arise with a longer span between inspections and brings more intense scrutiny to bear on those with a track record of failing to correct deficiencies. Other cities have long employed such systems and have found them effective in encouraging good behavior. Mr. Henry’s bill, which was drafted in a joint effort with city housing officials, would allow the better landlords to face inspections once every three years and subjects problematic ones to annual inspections. (The default is two years.) Just like in Baltimore County’s rental licensing program, landlords would have to contract privately with a licensed home inspector to verify that the property is up to standard. City inspectors would do spot checks for quality control. (The county prohibits inspectors to contract with the property owner to fix whatever deficiencies they find, a wise policy to prevent conflicts of interest.)

The cost for the inspections themselves would hardly be burdensome for the landlords. The rate would be set by the private market. In the county, where inspectors are required to check for basic safety features like smoke alarms, operable plumbing and furnaces, among other things, rates vary, but a typical price is about $125. (County officials say landlords are wise to shop around, not just on price but also on whether the inspector will charge a second fee if he or she has to come back to verify that repairs have been made.) They only way Mr. Henry’s legislation would become costly for landlords is if they are currently renting out properties that don’t meet the city’s basic standards for safety and habitability and they are forced to make repairs as a result — something they should have been doing anyway.

If there is any conceivable concern about the legislation it is that some landlords will conclude that complying isn’t worth it, and more properties will become vacant, both threatening to increase blight and to reduce Baltimore’s already limited stock of affordable housing. But relying on substandard units to comprise sufficient housing for those of limited means is hardly a viable strategy. It is possible for landlords to make a profit renting units that meet the city’s livability standards, and we should accept nothing less.

Meanwhile, the city needs to be more willing to take punitive action against landlords whose properties are cited for violations through the complaint-based inspection process as well. As The Sun’s Doug Donovan recently documented, Baltimore hardly ever revokes landlords’ licenses over failure to comply with city housing standards — just twice in the past dozen years. The Henry/Pugh legislation expands the circumstances in which the city can deny, suspend or revoke a license, which we hope indicates a greater willingness by city housing officials to get tough on problem landlords. For too long, Baltimore has acted like it has to choose between housing that is affordable and housing that is safe. The city’s renters deserve both.

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