Baltimore apartment buildings with repeat code violations would face more frequent city inspections under legislation introduced Monday by two city councilmen.
The Strengthening Renters’ Safety Act, introduced by Democratic Councilmen Zeke Cohen and James Torrence, would create a “priority dwelling” list of buildings with more than 20 apartments and a history of poor conditions. Buildings on the list would be inspected twice a year by the Department of Housing and Community Development until conditions improve.
Buildings that do not make improvements would be subject to losing their rental license.
“This bill is about demanding a basic standard of decency for the people who live here in Baltimore,” Cohen said during a news conference in West Baltimore to announce the legislation. “Today we say enough is enough.”
The bill, which requires consideration by the City Council, also would strengthen tenants’ rights. When buildings are inspected for a new or renewed license, the bill would require reports to be distributed to each resident. The legislation also would make the business contact information of rental license applicants publicly available. Tenants would be able to anonymously request their apartment building be included on the priority dwelling list.
The legislation calls for the creation of a rental licensing and inspection task force to oversee the bill’s implementation and the process going forward.
“We can’t allow people to sit and feel powerless when this city can do better,” said Torrence, who represents a portion of West Baltimore.
The councilmen announced the bill outside a group of historic apartment buildings, including the Esplanade, Emersonian and Temple Gardens. Once home to some of Baltimore’s elite, the apartments were converted to more affordable housing in the 1990s.
Tenants have long complained of widespread mold, rodent and cockroach infestations, broken elevators and poor security in the buildings, the kinds of problems that could make them eligible for the priority dwelling list, the councilmen said.
The Esplanade is owned by a partnership called Renaissance Plaza ‘93 Associates and the Emersonian and Temple Gardens by E.T.G. Associates ‘94; they share an address in suburban Philadelphia, according to Maryland real estate records. The owners did not respond Monday evening to a voicemail seeking comment.
Elaine Nichols, who has lived in Temple Gardens since 1996, has been in her current apartment for at least five years. The space, which she shares with her 14-year-old granddaughter, is moldy and infested with mice. The stove caught fire last fall, she said, causing damage that building managers have not repaired. The conditions have exacerbated Nichols’ chronic asthma, she said.
“My doctor told me and my granddaughter not to go back in that apartment,” she said, fighting back tears.
The proposed legislation calls for properties to be added to the priority list if they face two of the following in a calendar year:
- Habitability violations such as heating, plumbing, roof leaks, structural deficiencies, bedbugs or rodents that go unabated for more than 60 days;
- Elevator or lead paint violations that last more than 30 days;
- A high number of 311 calls for housing inspections;
- Operating under a one-year renewal license;
- Receiving a low inspection score from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
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Buildings designated as priority dwellings would be required to pay a fee for each unit for every year that the building remains on the priority list.
Cohen and Torrence said buildings such as Temple Gardens are not being inspected frequently enough. Also, the city allows multiunit buildings to be inspected by third-party inspectors, rather than city officials. And only a fraction of the building is inspected, they said.
Both councilmen urged the Baltimore Department of Housing and Community Development to make a request for additional inspectors during the upcoming city budget discussions.
“It’s not acceptable for an agency to say, ‘We don’t have enough inspectors,’ but then not come and make the ask during budget season,” said Cohen, noting that Baltimore recently received $641 million in American Rescue Plan funds and potentially has more on the way from federal infrastructure programs.
Cohen represents a portion of South Baltimore, including Canton, Fells Point and Highlandtown.
Tammy Hawley, a spokeswoman for Housing and Community Development, said the department looks forward to “exploring the proposal and resources needed with its sponsor.”
The department, she added, “like all city agencies, works with BBMR [Bureau of Budget and Management Research] every year during the budget cycle to identify opportunities for increased funding.”