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From $15 fees to $1,000 fines: Here's what to know about Baltimore's new rules for rental buildings, landlords

Baltimore’s new rules expanding oversight of rental properties and landlords is an ambitious undertaking that has required private sector help to multiply the number of apartment buildings inspected and licensed. Many say the overhauled rules are long overdue in a city where 53 percent of homes are rentals, far higher than the 37 percent national average.

Here’s what you need to know:

BEFORE: Previously only Baltimore’s approximately 5,700 multifamily dwellings with three or more units were required to be inspected and licensed. The old rules exempted the estimated 66,400 single-family and two-unit buildings that make up half of the city’s rental market and the bulk of tenant complaints.

NOW: The new policy, approved last May by the City Council and Mayor Catherine Pugh, requires that all rental properties pass a basic safety inspection to obtain an initial two-year license. The city-devised inspection checklist includes 12 mandatory items such as functioning smoke detectors, safe electrical outlets, heat, water and other basics. It also contains five referral items, including whether the property’s interior is “clean and sanitary” and “free of signs of infestations by rodents, insects, or pests.” Costs to landlords to register their properties with the city: $25 to $35 per-unit fees.

HOW: To help landlords meet the Dec. 31 deadline for completing inspections, city officials put out a call to private home inspection companies to join a directory that property owners must hire off of to conduct the reviews. The city got 387 private home inspectors to register. “That’s over a third of the number of home inspectors licensed in the state of Maryland,” said Jason Hessler, a deputy housing commissioner. Cost to landlords: between $50 and $250 per inspection, according to several inspectors and landlords.

RESULTS: The city has already licensed 23,016 properties, all of which had to pass the new safety check: 18,725 with one or two units, and 4,291 with three or more. Nearly 46,000 properties have completed some part of the process: registering contact information, paying the fees and uploading inspection reports and lead-paint certifications to the city’s new online portal. Unlike the previous policy, properties with outstanding violations cannot obtain a license until the issues are fixed. With landlords paying the cost of inspections, the city expects to spend about the $440,000 budget for its previous inspection process.

NEXT: After the program’s first two years, the city will implement a three-tier ranking system of landlords based on how responsive they were to citations. The best — landlords who respond within 60 days — will be rewarded with three-year licenses. The next tier — those who respond between 60 and 90 days — will get two-year licenses. The worst — owners who take more than three months to respond — will get a one-year license and pay an additional $15-per-unit fee that will go into the city’s affordable housing trust fund. Operating without a license carries a $1,000 fine and a lien on the property

BENEFITS: In addition to finding and fixing properties that previously went undetected, city officials say the program has created new jobs for private inspectors. “There’s now going to be an ongoing demand for that,” Hessler said. John James, owner of Authority Inspections, saw a bump in business almost immediately after the rules were enacted last year. “We were inundated with calls,” James said.

GROWING PAINS: Tenant advocates worry that some renters could be evicted once previously under-the-radar buildings are found to be uninhabitable. But, so far, the city has not seen evidence of any widespread displacement.

Landlords had that same worry. They also protested an initial 21-point checklist but agreed after several revisions to the 12 points. Inspectors demanded language that would protect them from liability for missing safety hazards that are not on their checklist, which is far less thorough than what they use for home sale inspections. For example, the checklist includes language saying that the inspection is not a “pest control consultation.” Only state-licensed pest control consultants can determine infestations and pesticide use.

ddonovan@baltsun.com

twitter.com/dougdonovan

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