Baltimore rental inspections: good idea gone wrong

The Baltimore City Council's mandate that residential rental properties must pass a basic health and safety inspection is a case study of a good idea gone wrong.

The ordinance, passed in March of this year, requires that private licensed home inspectors carry out inspections of approximately 25,000 to 30,000 one- or two-family rental dwellings by Jan. 1, 2019. Multifamily dwellings are already licensed but will need similar inspections once their licenses expire. Getting these scattered houses inspected in nine months might have been possible. But Baltimore Housing waited until Aug. 1 to announce its initial inspection protocol. This checklist has now been rewritten four times, with the most recent version released on Sept. 10 — less than four months before the deadline.

Baltimore Housing could have easily followed the example of Baltimore County, which has had a similar and quite successful program for more than 10 years. The county's checklist has eight items and can be performed in 25 to 45 minutes by any licensed home inspector for a cost of about $100 to $150. The city's list has 21 items and will cost perhaps $300 to $400 per unit.

Designers of the protocol may have the best interest of families renting in Baltimore, yet they apparently failed to consult licensed home inspectors or inspectors who perform HUD-HQS inspections for private landlords with Section 8 tenants. Moreover, they do not seem to understand the difference between a building code and a housing code, or what services a licensed home inspector can and cannot perform.

Building codes deal with structures that have yet to be built or remodeling work that by law must be done under permits by licensed professionals. The housing code acknowledges that existing structures must remain in compliance with the building code in effect at the time of their construction or major remodeling, but otherwise they are "grandfathered-in." The state legislature can and will require health and safety upgrades, such as the installation of smoke detectors.

For example, Baltimore Housing has the authority to require GFI (ground fault interrupter) outlets in kitchens and bathrooms for houses built or substantially remodeled after 1980, but it cannot require such receptacles for houses built before this date. Nevertheless, the proposed checklist requires these receptacles in some older houses.

Another electrical requirement came out of thin air: "The inspector shall ensure that wires that should be concealed behind walls are not visible. Electrical wires in this case do not refer to devices such as power strips, extension cords, etc." It may be unattractive to stable such cables every-which-way across plaster walls and ceilings, but it is not now and never has been a violation of any code.

Some requirements are absurd. In multifamily buildings a home inspector must establish that, “there is proper fire separation between dwellings, hallways and staircases." I don't see how even Superman with his X-ray vision could do this. A home inspector will either have to drill holes in many multifamily walls or fraudulently sign-off on this checklist item, knowing that someday they might be named among the negligent parties that contributed to the fire deaths of several people.

The checklist is quite concerned about rats, bedbugs and roaches ,and requires that vermin problems be reported to Baltimore Housing for a follow-up inspection. Yet control of vermin is normally a tenant responsibility. Under the checklist any vermin problem could lead to a landlord’s loss of rental license and the subsequent eviction of the tenant.

Moreover, pest inspectors are licensed and certified by the Maryland Department of Agriculture. According to the department’s enforcement coordinator, home inspectors are strictly prohibited from providing the type of pest control services the city is now requiring.

Perhaps with forethought this city could have come to terms with the applicable state laws and found a way for home inspectors to provide cursory pest inspections at some future date. Instead the requirements are now at odds with existing regulations.

Either deliberately or inadvertently the writers of this protocol have stripped licensed home inspectors of their rights to limited liability, as has been available in Maryland for decades. Instead it states, "This inspection shall not be construed as a 'home inspection' as defined by Maryland law." This opens up home inspectors to any and all lawsuits. For this reason, I don’t believe many on the city's present list of 323 licensed inspectors will be willing to perform these inspections.

The inspection program has now been in place for six weeks, and to date not a single one- or two-family dwelling has been issued a license that I’m aware of.

Most cynically, there is a glaring exemption of a major landlord from these requirements and inspections: Baltimore Housing itself. No public housing units will face such scrutiny.

Jack Reilly (jr@jackreillyassociates.com) has been a private commercial and residential building inspector for more than 35 years. In 1980 he was a consultant on HUD's first training manual for rehab specialists and trained such specialists in Baltimore, Los Angeles and other cities.

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