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Baltimore's poor deserve safe homes

Tenants Michelle Rosario and Amina Whynn discuss housing citations at their East Preston Street apartment building, which was cited for multiple violations in January.

It is an unfortunate reality that some landlords who fail newly required inspections for one- and two-family rental units in Baltimore will conclude that making the necessary repairs isn’t worth it, and low-income tenants will be displaced as a result. But the answer is for Baltimore to invest more in safe, high-quality affordable housing and assistance for tenants — not to coddle slumlords.

Statistics The Sun’s Doug Donovan reported last week show widespread compliance among landlords with the new rules, which require all rental units to meet a basic set of standards. Previously, only buildings with three or more units were required to pass inspections, but those made up a minority of the city’s rental housing — a little over 3,000 properties. Under the expanded registration system, some 19,000 previously exempt properties had gone through the registration process by late last month, with more than 20,000 others at least part of the way through the process. Hundreds of private housing inspectors have signed up to conduct the property reviews, which require basic standards of habitability, such as running hot and cold water, functioning toilets, safe electrical systems, a lack of water damage and working smoke detectors.

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The reform was long overdue — after all, why should a tenant’s safety depend on how many units are in a building? And for the most part, it seems to be working.

Inevitably, though, there will be some landlords who will refuse to make the necessary repairs, forcing tenants out onto the street. The sad truth is that some people in the property rental business in Baltimore have been all too willing to profit off of others’ poverty and desperation, collecting rent for properties in which no one should have to live.

Former Anne Arundel County councilman John Grasso, who once called those who live in subsidized housing developments “freeloaders,” who said that those who rely on government assistance to support their families "use children as a crutch to describe laziness," and who fought against the development of more affordable housing in the county on the grounds that the poor are prone to crime, is an exemplar of the type. He owns about 300 rental properties in the city and told Mr. Donvoan that he “threw people out” rather than meet the deadline for registration. He went on to claim that government requirements that rental units have utilities are bad for tenants who may not actually want them.

Perhaps he also believes that some people would prefer to have unsafe drinking water rather than be bogged down by all those pesky government regulations.

Allowing landlords to rent out apartments with exposed wiring, holes in the walls or ceilings, leaking plumbing and no heat is not and never was a solution to Baltimore’s affordable housing crisis. Anyone who thinks they were doing a good deed by providing slum housing to Baltimore’s poor is delusional.

Whether landlords simply don’t want to bother with making the repairs that the new housing rules require or because they decide it’s uneconomical to do so, some tenants will undoubtedly be displaced as a result of these inspections. But that doesn’t mean they should be abandoned. Washington state requires landlords to pay relocation expenses for tenants displaced because their properties are deemed uninhabitable (up to three times the monthly rent or $2,000, whichever is greater). Some local governments in California require landlords to pay all relocation expenses for tenants who are even temporarily displaced because of code violations. The same is true in Burlington, Vt. and in some places in New Jersey. Washington, D.C., requires landlords who discontinue the use of a rental property for any reason or who conduct substantial renovation to pay relocation assistance within 24 hours after a tenant leaves, and the city offers counseling to help displaced people find new homes.

The big picture, though, is that Baltimore has a massive deficit of safe, affordable housing. After years of effort by advocates and a successful campaign to put the issue on the ballot in Baltimore, Mayor Catherine Pugh last year agreed to invest $20 million a year to support an affordable housing trust fund. That’s expected to create, rehabilitate or preserve 4,100 units over the next 10 years — a good start but nowhere near what we need. The reason people are living in substandard housing units is not, as Mr. Grasso would suggest, by choice but by necessity. We need not only to require that landlords follow safe housing laws but also to make sure tenants have better options.

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