Baltimore enacts new rules to root out squalid rental properties. But some tenants could lose their homes

Amina Whynn knows her cramped apartment on the third floor of a century-old East Baltimore rowhouse is not ideal for raising two young daughters. But for three years, she says, her landlord has allowed her to pay whatever she can afford each month. So the 24-year-old mother has quietly endured the building’s many flaws.

The East Preston Street property was cited last month for 14 housing code violations, including no fire escape. The building — standing between a trash-strewn alley and a partially collapsed rowhouse — lacks a current lead-paint certification; rodents and roaches are frequent guests; and trash bags pile up on the front sidewalk because there aren’t enough garbage cans for a four-apartment building, according to tenants and city records.

“It’s horrible in here,” said Whynn, cradling her infant daughter, A’Mia. “Nobody should have to live like this.”

In fact, four separate tenants should not be living in the building at all, city officials say. The property has been misclassified for years as a single-family dwelling — a designation that kept it on a list of tens of thousands of rental buildings in Baltimore that for decades have been exempt from government inspections and licensing.

Until now.

A sweeping overhaul of regulations governing landlords and their properties requires all rental buildings to pass a safety inspection before being granted temporary two-year licenses. After the new program’s initial phase, city officials will devise a naughty-or-nice list of landlords: Attentive owners will be rewarded with longer three-year licenses while negligent ones will be penalized with more frequent inspections and additional fees.

“It’s a major change,” said Jason Hessler, a deputy housing commissioner.

For more than half a century, city government inspected and licensed only the approximately 5,700 “multi-family” buildings with three or more units. That excluded the estimated 66,400 single-family and two-unit homes that make up more than half of the city’s rental market and generate the bulk of tenant complaints to 311.

The overhaul is long overdue in a city in which 53 percent of all properties are rentals, far above the 37 percent national average, say landlord groups, tenant advocates and city officials. The new process aims to find, fine and fix properties that harbor some of the worst living conditions.

But some landlords and tenant advocates worry that low-income tenants could face eviction as officials discover previously under-the-radar buildings with significant problems.

City officials say there has been no evidence of widespread displacement. But the violations issued to the East Preston Street property make it clear that Whynn and her fellow tenants will have to move if the landlord does not correct the problems.

“I had a case with a tenant who was forced to leave because the property didn’t pass inspection,” said Zafar Shah, an attorney with the Public Justice Center, a nonprofit that represents low-income tenants in housing court. “The landlord isn’t paying any price for what happened to the property while the tenant is paying the ultimate price by being forced to leave.”

City Councilman Bill Henry introduced legislation to establish the program early last year after a series of articles in The Baltimore Sun revealed lax enforcement of rental housing codes, especially in the city’s “rent escrow court,” where tenants ask judges to set aside rent payments until landlords fix serious hazards. Other than calling 311, the court is the tenant’s only recourse. But The Sun’s yearlong investigation found that judges ruled in favor of landlords far more often than tenants, even when inspectors testified that threats persisted.

The series featured two landlord-grading programs in Minnesota that impose penalties against slumlords and offer incentives for owners to be more responsive to complaints and citations. The Minneapolis program also provides help to tenants who must leave hazardous properties, a provision Shah and others would like to see added to Baltimore’s policy.

To launch Baltimore’s ambitious effort to massively expand inspections without expanding costs, city officials looked closer to home for a solution: Baltimore County for years has required landlords to hire state-licensed home inspectors from a county-approved directory.

So, in May, city officials put out a call for help, hoping to recruit 200 private inspectors, Hessler said. They got nearly double — 387.

As of late January, 23,016 rental properties have obtained licenses, including nearly 19,000 previously exempt buildings. For context, consider: Under the former rules, the city licensed a total of just 3,372 multi-family properties.

In all, Hessler said, the owners of nearly 46,000 properties have completed at least one of the steps in the online licensing process: registering contact information, paying per-unit fees of $25 to $35, and uploading lead paint certifications and inspection reports obtained from the private inspectors, who use a 12-point checklist created by the city.

Though the Dec. 31 compliance deadline has passed, thousands of landlords are still scrambling to comply. But city housing officials are holding off on intensive enforcement for another few weeks. Failure to obtain a license carries a $1,000 fine and a lien on the property.

“The goal is to make sure that everyone who is renting has a safe place to live,” Hessler said.

The East Preston Street building provides a good example of how the program can achieve that goal, he said.

In November, Pathik Rami, who is listed as the property’s owner in city records, hired an inspector to conduct the building’s initial inspection. It failed for electrical problems and no smoke detectors, the inspection report states. A Christmas Eve reinspection yielded a passing grade.

The city would later decide that the private inspector missed some things. But the inspector correctly noted that the property contains four units, each with a bathroom and a kitchen. That raised a red flag for city officials, because the building’s voluntary annual registration had classified it as a single-family dwelling since 2012.

Surprised that the house passed inspection, Whynn’s first-floor neighbor, Michelle Rosario, called 311. A government inspector visited Jan. 22 and issued 14 violations, including that it has no fire escape (a requirement the city failed to include on its checklist). The other violations were for defective ceilings and walls due to water damage, for unstable stair railings and for “operating a rooming house or other multiple dwelling without a proper license,” according to the city inspector’s report.

The property “lacks proper permit for present use of building,” it states.

Under the city’s old rules, Rami could have gotten a new rental license before he corrected any of the problems. The new regulations eliminate that flexibility. Properties with outstanding violations cannot obtain a license.

Rami said he could fix the violations but that his maintenance workers are afraid to enter the building because he says one of Whynn’s male friends has threatened them. He added that he is addressing the citations and the lack of a required lead safety certificate.

He called Whynn and Rosario “professional tenants” who have not paid rent for months and are working the system to stay longer by calling 311. He also says he asked Whynn and Rosario to move out, but they refused.

Rami agreed this week to settle Whynn’s rent escrow court action by letting her pay $400 for January and February, but then he wants her out. Rosario’s rent escrow complaint against Rami’s company, PR Capital, was dismissed in December after she failed to deposit rent into the court’s coffers. That resulted in a default judgment against her for Rami’s failure-to-pay-rent claim seeking $1,440.

Shah, who represented Rosario, asked for a new trial because Rami has rented the building without a proper license, but a judge refused. He is appealing that decision, but Rosario on Wednesday received an eviction notice.

“Michelle Rosario took a stand against substandard housing conditions and her unlicensed landlord,” Shah said. “But the legal system failed her.”

Last year, the City Council rejected measures to provide assistance to tenants with relocation costs if they were forced out of “unlicensed, dangerous properties.” But Public Justice Center and Baltimore Renters United are continuing to push for such funding.

“Where am I going to go?” said Rosario, 48. “If I have to leave, I’ll be homeless.” The tenants in the building’s other two units declined to be interviewed for this article.

With a few minor repairs the house could be habitable, Rosario says. As it is, she has wedged wood planks against her back door to prevent alley-prowling addicts from breaking into a back room she keeps empty because of water leaks cited by the city inspector.

John Grasso, a former Anne Arundel County councilman who owns about 300 rental units in Baltimore, says he warned city officials that the new rules could put some tenants on the street.

“I threw people out because I couldn’t make the deadline” for inspections, Grasso said. That’s what the city gets for imposing more regulations, he said.

When the city proposed a 21-point checklist for inspectors, landlords protested. Three revisions later, both sides agreed to the 12-point process, including checking for smoke detectors; safe electrical outlets; hot and cold running water; heat; electricity; and active and metered gas service.

Tenant advocates complain that the changes catered to landlords by removing “interior cleanliness” and lack of rodent infestation from the list of requirements that must be met for a building to pass inspection. Those two standards are instead on a “referral” list, allowing inspectors to give a passing grade to a rental despite those issues while referring the property for follow-up by the city. Licenses can be issued before city officials check up on such referred items, a provision that frustrates some tenant advocates .

Infestation and cleanliness, Shah said, “are the two most important concerns that low-income renters have.”

Grasso, meanwhile, faults the list for requiring utilities; he says not all tenants want them.

“Who is the government to tell people they have to have utilities in their places? Maybe tenants don’t want gas and electric turned on,” he said. “There are plenty of people who don’t want to deal with those companies. They want running water and a roof over their head and that’s it.”

As city officials devised the new system, some advocates expressed concern that landlords might hire private inspectors with whom they have had an ongoing professional relationship. Asked about that, private inspectors interviewed by The Sun said their livelihood depends on their professional objectivity. They said they would not risk losing their state-issued licenses by cutting corners for someone. The licenses are a prerequisite for their primary source of business, inspections sought in connection with home sales.

“I’m really there for both of them — the landlords and the tenants,” said Nikki Marlatt-Young, owner of the inspection business AEHI.

Marlatt-Young has worked for years conducting inspections for a company called Peace of Mind Property Management when it is buying homes. She called the company one of her most important clients. But when she conducted the city inspection of one of its unoccupied rentals in Southwest Baltimore, she failed it for not having smoke and carbon monoxide detectors. Weeks later she accompanied Peace of Mind’s owner for a reinspection.

Inside, all good. But the backyard?

“Oh, no,” said Marlatt-Young. Possible rat burrow. “You’re going to have to fill that in.”

Marlatt-Young applauds the city, saying she believes the program is prodding landlords to improve their properties.

“I see a lot of cleaning up going on,” she said. “It will do good for the owners and the renters.”

No way, says Frank Hock, a landlord with 26 properties. The process will only deter investors from buying in Baltimore, he says, exacerbating the shortage of affordable housing.

“The city keeps putting more costs on the landlords,” Hock said. “Today, the tenants have all the rights and the landlords don’t have a chance.”

ddonovan@baltsun.com

twitter.com/dougdonovan

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