Warnings from one of its members that there is a housing crisis in part of Edgewood prompted the Harford County Council Tuesday to authorize a review of the county's property Livability Code which sets maintenance and other responsibilities for owners of rental housing and their tenants.
During its latest legislative session in Bel Air, the council unanimously passed a resolution setting up the task force to review the code and recommend updates.
Councilman Dion Guthrie, who represents the Edgewood area, introduced the resolution.
According to the resolution, the task force will review and update county laws and standards regarding the Livability Code, which Guthrie said was passed in 1989 and has not been changed since.
Not only will this review address minimum property maintenance standards and responsibilities of landlords and tenants, the resolution calls upon the task force to examine "the County's administration, enforcement and penalty provisions of the Code."
Guthrie explained that "because of the economy, housing has plummeted in value, in Edgewood it really has plummeted," in turn attracting an influx of what he called "devious investors," who buy at depressed prices and then rent out the units without doing any improvements to them.
Guthrie said the owners of these units aren't interested in maintaining them and are contributing to blight in Edgewater Village, a neighborhood that has had its share of problems in recent years. He said condos along Crimson Tree Way are a particularly severe example.
He said condo units on the street that sold for as much as $100,000 before the mortgage crisis today are selling for a tenth of that or less.
Guthrie said similar cut-rate sales are occurring elsewhere in the community along Judy Way, Eloise Lane and Grempler Way, among other streets.
"You have some places that were selling for $100,000 to $150,000 that are now going for $23,000 to $24,000," Guthrie continued, noting that banks have also made it more difficult for many buyers to get mortgages, further depressing prices and inviting speculators.
With the housing prices depressed, he said, speculators are "buying up a whole batch of properties," renting out units for $1,000 a month and paying off their initial investments in a matter of months.
"I'm not against people turning a profit," he said, "but these people don't want to fix these places up; they don't want to do a thing."
"You can literally drive down the street and pick out the places that are rentals or owned," he continued, adding that some rentals have "busted windows, no grass, loose shutters."
According to the resolution passed Tuesday, the task force to study the Livability Code will have a maximum of 13 members, including a representatives of the housing industry and business community, someone from the county Housing Agency and a county council member.
Guthrie said the appointment of task force members will have to be approved by the council, as will any recommendations the group makes before they can be implemented. A final report from the group will be due to the county council in early January 2012.
Guthrie said Harford's three municipal governments have all in recent years addressed their property rental and maintenance codes, while the county has not. He didn't point out, however, that such reviews in the cities of Havre de Grace and Aberdeen and the town of Bel Air have frequently engendered controversy.
"Something has to happen…we are so far behind the standard we really should be embarrassed," Guthrie said of the county's Livability Code. "We have been way behind the curve, and it's time we brought it up to the curve."
Maintenance of rental properties in the southwestern part of Harford is a problem, agrees Margaret Steen, a Joppatowne resident and owner of the real estate firm Steen Properties.
"We definitely need to make landlords more accountable," Steen, a veteran of the Harford real estate sales market, said Wednesday, recounting how she has had problems with absentee landlords keeping up rental housing in her own neighborhood.
Like Guthrie, Steen said some landlords simply don't care about keeping up their properties, nor do their tenants. This can adversely affect property values throughout a neighborhood, she added, particularly if there is a mix of rental and owner-occupied housing.
"People need to take a forceful stand when properties aren't being kept up," Steen said. "They need to call the county, because the county can't help them if they know about it."
"Any time I have called the county with a problem like this, I have always had wonderful results," she continued. "The county will get on a landlord to clean up, or they will do it and bill them."
Steen said Guthrie's characterization of the depressed housing market in Edgewater Village is not far off the mark.
She checked some recent sales records for The Aegis and noted a condo in the area of Edgewater Village where Guthrie was talking about recently sold for as low as $17,000, and these records don't include auctions and other bank-related sales. There are other records of unit sales in the low $20,000s, she said.
Edgewood is classified by the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development as "high foreclosure hot spot," the only such area in Harford. According to the department's first quarter 2011 report issued in April, there were 27 foreclosures in the 21040 ZIP code in the first three months of this year.