Exposed plumbing and shoddy repairs in the second floor apartment of Gary Owens on North Caroline Street. Water damage from a leaky roof has forced Owens out of his bedroom, and made him resort to keeping many of his belongings packed up in boxes.
Exposed plumbing and shoddy repairs in the second floor apartment of Gary Owens on North Caroline Street. Water damage from a leaky roof has forced Owens out of his bedroom, and made him resort to keeping many of his belongings packed up in boxes. (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

Landlords of small rental properties in Baltimore are now getting their apartments inspected under a new city law aimed at improving housing conditions in low-income neighborhoods.

Owners of rental properties with one or two units will have to pass a 20-point checklist before Jan. 1 to obtain a license to rent in the city.

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That requirement previously applied only to Baltimore’s approximately 6,000 multifamily dwellings with three or more units. But most of the city’s code violations for no heat, mold, rodents and other health risks are found in the one-and-two-unit properties that make up half of Baltimore’s rental market.

“This is huge,” said Ruth Ann Norton, president and CEO of the Green and Healthy Homes Initiative. “The majority of our health problems that come out of housing come out of the small rental properties. They’re often the ones that have escaped oversight in terms of health issues, lead, asthma and injury.”

City officials agree. In a notice to landlords, Baltimore’s Department of Housing and Community Development said the law “is a major step toward improving the overall quality of the housing stock.”

“The city is working to ensure that tenants have healthier, safer places to live,” the department said.

'Significant update' to half-century-old Baltimore rental rules calls for licensing, inspecting all housing units

Baltimore City Councilman Bill Henry plans to introduce a bill that would require all residential rental properties to be licensed and inspected.

The law took effect Aug. 1, giving property owners five months to hire one of the more than 225 licensed home inspection companies to conduct the reviews.

The timeframe worries some landlords.

“It’s going to be tight,” said Adam Skolnik, executive director of the Maryland Multi-Housing Association, the state’s largest landlord group.

Still, the group supports the law.

“It’s great that they’re going to inspect the smaller [landlords],” Skolnik said.

Advocates for Baltimore tenants have long blamed substandard living conditions on lax judicial and government oversight of landlords. Fifty-three percent of homes in Baltimore are rentals, far above the national average of nearly 37 percent.

The Baltimore Sun reported last year that judges in the city’s landlord-tenant court routinely ruled in favor of property owners in disputes, even when renters proved they were paying rent to live in unsafe living conditions. The city rarely collects or enforces financial and legal penalties levied against landlords.

The Sun identified other cities that have more stringent inspection requirements and policies that distinguish between good and bad landlords.

Baltimore’s new policy is similar to one in Minneapolis in that it establishes different tiers of licenses. The Baltimore landlords with strong inspection records can get three-year licenses. Those with weaker compliance receive two-year and one-year licenses.

To expand inspections without burdening the city’s existing inspectors, landlords will have to pay between $50 to $150 per unit for state-licensed home inspectors to determine whether their properties comply with regulations. That’s similar to the process used by Baltimore County.

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Baltimore officials want fixes, not fines, from landlords

Housing inspectors in Baltimore have issued more than $34.8 million in fines and late fees to property owners since 2010.

If a property has nine or fewer units, all require inspection before receiving a license. In complexes with 10 or more units, a certain percentage would have to pass.

The process is expected to free up city inspectors to focus on the tens of thousands of complaints reported through 311 and emergencies such as lack of heat reported through 911.

Most of the city’s approximately 220,000 annual inspections are spurred by such complaints.

Advocates say the new licensing and inspection system should be a more effective way of flagging and fixing dangerous living conditions.

Zafar Shah, an attorney at the Public Justice Center, has worked to improve the housing court that reviews tenant complaints of substandard living conditions.

“There is potential for improving living conditions preventatively,” Shah said.

Requiring smaller landlords to be inspected and licensed gives tenants more ways to challenge problematic landlords, he said.

Low-income renters in Baltimore become migrants in their own city

Eviction, and the threat of eviction, weigh heavily on the lives of many of Baltimore's poorest tenants. They move from one ramshackle rental to the next, migrants in their own city, squeezed by rents that consume most of their meager incomes, intolerable housing conditions, a court system that advocates say is insufficiently responsive to their complaints, and a rate of eviction actions that is among the highest in the nation.

In 2017, Baltimore landlords filed 142,195 “failure to pay rent” actions against tenants in district court, leading to 67,000 eviction notices and 7,427 actual evictions. Meanwhile, tenants filed 945 complaints about living conditions, down from 1,062 complaints a year earlier.

Challenging landlords about their licenses and inspections could also improve enforcement of lead paint remediation efforts. Landlords are required to provide the inspector with their lead certificates from the state.

Norton, a longtime advocate on lead-poisoning issues, said the new process should help the state make sure it is listing all of the correct properties on Maryland’s online registry of lead-affected addresses.

Shah expressed a concern about the new law. It doesn’t say what will happen to tenants whose landlords fail inspection, and he says they could be displaced. In Minneapolis, tenants are allowed to remain for a prescribed period — longer in the winter — to avoid homelessness.

“The City Council and the mayor haven’t identified a backstop against forced displacement when a property loses a license or is denied a license,” Shah said. “We need a solution before it becomes a downside to the new law.”

Strict landlord oversight in Minnesota offers Baltimore a model

Minneapolis and other towns deploy licensing rules that grade landlords and quickly punishes those with consistent problems, unlike in Baltimore.

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