The rent re­ally is too high

The Washington Post Sunday - - LOCAL OPINIONS -

Many Mont­gomery County res­i­dents have lit­tle voice in how much it costs to live here. In Sil­ver Spring, more than 60 per­cent of res­i­dents are renters.

Af­ter the 2008 mort­gage mar­ket bust, more peo­ple found rental hous­ing an at­trac­tive al­ter­na­tive to buy­ing a home. A drive down any ma­jor thor­ough­fare in Mont­gomery County shows rental hous­ing con­struc­tion con­tin­u­ing at a hur­ried pace.

Un­til­now, there have been few con­trols on how much a land­lord or prop­erty man­ager can raise a fam­ily’s an­nual rent. Although Mont­gomery County sug­gests a max­i­mum yearly in­crease — in 2015, it is 2.3 per­cent — it’s only a sug­ges­tion. Fam­i­lies of­ten face dou­ble that amount or more. If a ten­ant can’t af­ford the rental in­crease, the only al­ter­na­tive is to move out, re­gard­less of the tur­moil. At a land­lord’s whim, chil­dren are forced to change schools, and par­ents face longer com­mutes and less time to spend with their fam­i­lies.

If ten­ants com­plain about sub­stan­dard hous­ing — fire haz­ards, moldy dwellings, rats, roaches, leaky plumb­ing — they can be sin­gled out for a land­lord’s wrath. With no more than 60 days’ warn­ing, a fam­ily who has paid its rent on time and lived qui­etly in its home can have its lease re­voked. Fam­i­lies can be sub­jected to ver­bal abuse and threats of le­gal ac­tion sim­ply for ask­ing that their dwellings be kept up to county build­ing, plumb­ing and elec­tri­cal code.

Bill 19-15, which is pend­ing be­fore the Mont­gomery County Coun­cil, would strengthen rental hous­ing data col­lec­tion, end out­ra­geous month-to-month lease fees, in­crease code in­spec­tion of rental prop­er­ties, re­quire land­lords to jus­tify ex­ces­sive rent in­creases and re­quire leases to be writ­ten in clear lan­guage. It’s about time.

Prompted by a pe­ti­tion signed by nearly 1,000 renters in 2008, County Ex­ec­u­tive Isiah Leggett (D) con­vened the Ten­ants Work Group to look into an ex­ten­sive list of se­cu­rity and qual­ity-of-life con­cerns voiced by the grow­ing pop­u­la­tion of county res­i­dents liv­ing in rental hous­ing.

The work group’s re­port made more than 50 rec­om­men­da­tions to the coun­cil and the ex­ec­u­tive for im­proved gov­ern­ment re­spon­sive­ness and le­gal pro­tec­tion. In­cluded was rent sta­bi­liza­tion, sim­i­lar to Takoma Park’s suc­cess­ful pro­gram to pro­tect renters from ex­ces­sive rent in­creases, and a just cause evic­tion law re­quir­ing land­lords to pro­vide a good rea­son for non-re­newal of leases. The re­port called for in­creased build­ing code in­spec­tions, more re­spon­sive land­lord and ten­ant ser­vices, cre­ation of a ten­ant ad­vo­cacy or­ga­ni­za­tion, plain-lan­guage model leases and in­creased out­reach and ed­u­ca­tion for ten­ants and land­lords.

At Leggett’s di­rec­tion in 2012, the Depart­ment of Hous­ing and Com­mu­nity Af­fairs agreed to many of these rec­om­men­da­tions, in­clud­ing those pro­posed in the bill. Un­for­tu­nately, few of the rec­om­men­da­tions were acted upon. The County Coun­cil needs to pay closer at­ten­tion to the grow­ing num­ber of its con­stituents who rent their homes and en­act laws and reg­u­la­tions ap­pro­pri­ate to their needs. Bill 19-15 is a good ex­am­ple. As one of the three in five Sil­ver Spring cit­i­zens who rent, I in­tend to watch how this bill fares be­fore the coun­cil.

It is time the coun­cil stops lis­ten­ing to de­vel­op­ers, land­lords and in­vest­ment com­pa­nies that bankroll their cam­paigns and starts pro­tect­ing the one-third of county res­i­dents who live in rental hous­ing. The coun­cil should pass Bill 19-15 now.

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