Karen Arnold and her husband often joke about buying up Hampstead's rental homes, then leasing them low-cost with one proviso -- that tenants look after them.
Underneath the kidding, however, is frustration. Arnold says an apartment building near the Evergreen Drive home the couple bought two years ago was an eyesore, with garbage littering the curb, car parts in the yard and a box spring and mattress left against a porch.
"There was trash all over the property and it was stacked up all week," said Arnold. "It looked like a trash heap."
To address similar complaints, Hampstead is seeking legal advice on proposed legislation intended to ensure that the town's rental properties are well maintained. Under the plan, landlords would be required to register rental properties annually, and Town Manager Kenneth Decker said owners failing to achieve "appropriate" maintenance standards could lose their right to rent.
"It's our way of addressing the problems that are endemic with absentee landlords or, for lack of a better phrase, what people refer to as 'slumlords,' " Decker said.
Decker said most of Hampstead's 250 to 300 rental units are owned by people outside the community. He said complaints about rental properties most often concern absentee landlords and range from peeling paint to broken windows to overgrown vegetation and spilled garbage. He said that though the proposed legislation wasn't precipitated by a particular property, concern has arisen about rental homes along a strip of Main Street slated for revitalization under a recently approved plan.
"Our Main Street is the focal point of the community in terms of activity," Decker said. "We certainly have an interest as a community to make sure the property along Main Street reflects the quality of life Hampstead offers."
Under the proposal, tenants in units deemed unsuitable for rental would be given notice and required to vacate within a specified period, likely 60 days. Decker said the intent isn't to drive people from their homes, but to ensure the quality of rental housing doesn't decline and, in turn, lead to the creation of rundown neighborhoods.
"There's interest in taking action before it's perceived as a major problem," he said. "We see the signs of what could happen, particularly given what's happened in other communities."
Hampstead's municipal laws governing property maintenance carry fines up to $100, an amount Decker said provides little deterrence for owners bringing in many times that in monthly rental fees. The proposed legislation isn't meant to be punitive, but to ensure owners "exercise due diligence in maintaining their rental properties," Decker said.
Hampstead Mayor Christopher M. Nevin said the majority of the town's rental properties are well maintained but the issue has been a growing concern.
"It's something we've been considering for a couple of years," Nevin said. "It's just another tool so that if you have a property that's clearly nonconforming and becoming an eyesore and not livable, you'll have a remedy to rectify the situation."
Calling a legal challenge of the legislation "inevitable," Decker said the ordinance will come back before the planning and zoning commission before proceeding to Town Council and a public hearing.
Arnold hopes it's approved. She went to the council in March to complain about the apartment near her home. She says that although it's been cleaned up, she supports the legislation.
"If that's what it takes to call people to action to maintain their properties and be more cautious about who they rent to, I think it's a fabulous idea," she said.