A bill that its sponsor says would help "level the playing field" between landlords and tenants is being considered by the Howard County Council.
Proposals in the bill sponsored by chairwoman Mary Kay Sigaty would require that landlords present written leases to prospective tenants, that landlords give at least 24-hour notice before entering a tenant's premises and that tenants may give 30 days notice to terminate a lease, in certain situations.
It also allows tenants to terminate their lease within 30 days if they receive an involuntary change of employment more than 25 miles from their current place of employment or the death or unemployment of a person whose income was used to qualify for the lease. Maryland law does not include such provisions on early lease termination.
The bill gives the county's Office of Consumer Protection power to investigate tenants complaints, or initiate its own investigations, and can require landlords to provide relevant documents. Office of Consumer Protection Administrator Becky Bowman endorsed the bill during a Monday night council hearing.
Real estate and housing groups have been critical of the bill. They worry it puts too much burden on landlords and not enough responsibility on tenants.
Introduction of the bill has been a year in the making, Sigaty said. She said she has been hearing complaints from constituents about problems with their landlords, beginning with her daughter Bridget Graham, who testified at Monday's hearing.
Graham, a former Columbia resident, described issues with a workman showing up in her apartment unannounced and of inadequate apartment maintenance when she found mold. She said in her testimony that she hopes the bill will help other tenants who don't know as much about the local government.
Members of the Howard County Association of Realtors and the Maryland Multi-Housing Association have met with Sigaty to work through their concerns and testified at Monday night's hearing.
This month, those seeking county assistance to buy or rent a home can apply for the county’s Moderate Income Housing Unit program, which includes homes sold at lower than market rate price or units rented at lesser rates.
Maryland Multi-Housing Association includes members from 79 percent of rental communities in Howard County, making up 15,600 units, Director of Government Affairs Aaron Greenfield said in his testimony. Howard County is home to just under 30,000 rental households, according to the 2014 Howard County Housing Survey, the most recent year for which data was available.
One of MMHA's biggest concerns with the bill, said Greenfield, is the early termination clause. Greenfield said that by allowing tenants to terminate their lease on 30 days' notice, it puts landlords at financial risk.
In its seven pages of bill comments and suggested amendments, MMHA proposed increasing the employment change radius to 100 miles and giving landlords the ability to charge up to two months' rent to the tenant upon early termination of the lease.
Fulton resident Richard Green, who is a single property landlord in the county, testified that the clause, if passed as introduced by Sigaty, would make him hesitant to buy any further property to lease in the county.
"I am not cold-hearted in any way, shape or form, but I know that when you enter a contract, it's a business arrangement and it is meant to be performed on," Green said. "Loss of employment to me is just not an out. I'm about fairness and being equitable, but I don't see this as a two way street of being equitable."
Portions of the bill are also concerning to affordable housing groups, including Bridges to Housing Stability, a Columbia-based nonprofit dedicated to helping connect low income families with affordable housing. Executive Director Kelly McLaughlin testified that while she supports the bill generally, she worries that if passed as proposed, it could drive down the already small number of landlords willing to rent to low-income families.
McLaughlin suggested increasing the minimum lease termination notice to 60 days.
Jackie Eng of the Association of Community Services, a countywide network of human services organizations, expressed similar concerns.
"We need to continue to attract private landlords, not dissuade them from increasing the county's pool of affordable and accessible housing," Eng said. "And we should not create the unintended consequence of financial or administrative burden on already under-resourced nonprofits that provide affordable and accessible housing."