Bal­ti­more’s new rules aim at squalid rental prop­er­ties

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - By Doug Dono­van

Amina Whynn knows her cramped apart­ment on the third floor of a cen­tu­ry­old East Bal­ti­more row­house is not ideal for rais­ing two young daugh­ters. But for three years, she says, her land­lord has al­lowed her to pay what­ever she can af­ford each month. So the 24-year-old mother has qui­etly en­dured the build­ing’s many flaws.

The East Pre­ston Street prop­erty was cited last month for 14 hous­ing code vi­o­la­tions, in­clud­ing no fire es­cape. The build­ing — stand­ing be­tween a trash­strewn al­ley and a par­tially col­lapsed row­house — lacks a cur­rent lead-paint cer­ti­fi­ca­tion; ro­dents and roaches are fre­quent guests; and trash bags pile up on the front side­walk be­cause there aren’t enough garbage cans for a four-apart­ment build­ing, ac­cord­ing to ten­ants and city records.

“It’s hor­ri­ble in here,” said Whynn, cradling her in­fant daugh­ter, A’Mia. “No­body should have to live like this.”

In fact, four sep­a­rate ten­ants should not be liv­ing in the build­ing at all, city of­fi­cials say. The prop­erty has been mis­clas­si­fied for years as a sin­gle-fam­ily dwelling — a des­ig­na­tion that kept it on a list of tens of thou­sands of rental build­ings in Bal­ti­more that for decades have been ex­empt from gov­ern­ment in­spec­tions and li­cens­ing. Un­til now.

A sweep­ing over­haul of reg­u­la­tions gov­ern­ing land­lords and their prop­er­ties re­quires all rental build­ings to pass a safety in­spec­tion be­fore be­ing granted tem­po­rary two-year li­censes. Af­ter the new pro­gram’s ini­tial phase, city of­fi­cials will de­vise a naughty-or-nice list of land­lords: At­ten­tive own­ers will be re­warded with longer three-year li­censes while neg­li­gent ones will be pe­nal­ized with more fre­quent in­spec­tions and ad­di­tional fees.

“It’s a ma­jor change,” said Ja­son Hessler, a deputy hous­ing com­mis­sioner.

For more than half a cen­tury, city gov­ern­ment in­spected and li­censed only the ap­prox­i­mately 5,700 “multi-fam­ily” build­ings with three or more units. That ex­cluded the es­ti­mated 66,400 sin­gle­fam­ily and two-unit homes that make up more than half of the city’s rental mar­ket and gen­er­ate the bulk of ten­ant com­plaints.

The over­haul is long over­due in a city in which 53 per­cent of all prop­er­ties are rentals, far above the 37 per­cent na­tional aver­age, say land­lord groups, ten­ant ad­vo­cates and city of­fi­cials. The new process aims to find, fine and fix prop­er­ties that har­bor some of the worst liv­ing con­di­tions.

But some land­lords and ten­ant ad­vo­cates worry that low-in­come ten­ants could face evic­tion as of­fi­cials dis­cover pre­vi­ously un­der-the-radar build­ings with sig­nif­i­cant prob­lems. City of­fi­cials say there has been no ev­i­dence of wide­spread dis­place­ment. But the vi­o­la­tions is­sued to the East Pre­ston Street prop­erty make it clear that Whynn and her fel­low ten­ants will have to move if the land­lord does not cor­rect the prob­lems.

“I had a case with a ten­ant who was forced to leave be­cause the prop­erty didn’t pass in­spec­tion,” said Za­far Shah, an at­tor­ney with the Pub­lic Jus­tice Cen­ter, a non­profit that rep­re­sents low-in­come ten­ants in hous­ing court. “The land­lord isn’t pay­ing any price for what hap­pened to the prop­erty while the ten­ant is pay­ing the ul­ti­mate price by be­ing forced to leave.”

City Coun­cil­man Bill Henry in­tro­duced leg­is­la­tion to es­tab­lish the pro­gram last year af­ter a se­ries of ar­ti­cles in The Bal­ti­more Sun re­vealed lax en­force­ment of rental hous­ing codes, es­pe­cially in the city’s “rent escrow court,” where ten­ants ask judges to set aside rent pay­ments un­til land­lords fix se­ri­ous haz­ards. Other than call­ing 311, the court is the ten­ant’s only re­course. But The Sun’s year­long in­ves­ti­ga­tion found that judges ruled in fa­vor of land­lords far more of­ten than ten­ants, even when in­spec­tors tes­ti­fied that threats per­sisted.

The se­ries fea­tured two land­lord-grad­ing pro­grams in Min­nesota that im­pose penal­ties against slum­lords and of­fer in­cen­tives for own­ers to be more re­spon­sive to com­plaints and ci­ta­tions. The Min­neapo­lis pro­gram also pro­vides help to ten­ants who must leave haz­ardous prop­er­ties, a pro­vi­sion Shah and oth­ers would like to see added to Bal­ti­more’s pol­icy.

To launch Bal­ti­more’s am­bi­tious ef­fort to mas­sively ex­pand in­spec­tions with­out ex­pand­ing costs, city of­fi­cials looked closer to home for a so­lu­tion: Bal­ti­more County for years has re­quired land­lords to hire statelicensed home in­spec­tors from a countyap­proved di­rec­tory. So, in May, city of­fi­cials put out a call for help, hop­ing to re­cruit 200 pri­vate in­spec­tors, Hessler said. They got nearly dou­ble — 387.

As of late Jan­uary, 23,016 rental prop­er­ties have ob­tained li­censes, in­clud­ing nearly 19,000 pre­vi­ously ex­empt build­ings. For con­text, con­sider: Un­der the for­mer rules, the city li­censed a to­tal of just 3,372 multi-fam­ily prop­er­ties.

In all, Hessler said, the own­ers of nearly 46,000 prop­er­ties have com­pleted at least one of the steps in the on­line li­cens­ing process: regis­ter­ing con­tact in­for­ma­tion, pay­ing per-unit fees of $25 to $35, and up­load­ing lead paint cer­ti­fi­ca­tions and in­spec­tion re­ports ob­tained from the pri­vate in­spec­tors, who use a 12-point check­list created by the city.

Though the Dec. 31 com­pli­ance dead­line has passed, thou­sands of land­lords are still scram­bling to com­ply. But city hous­ing of­fi­cials are hold­ing off on in­ten­sive en­force­ment for an­other few weeks. Fail­ure to ob­tain a li­cense car­ries a $1,000 fine and a lien on the prop­erty. “The goal is to make sure that ev­ery­one who is rent­ing has a safe place to live,” Hessler said.

The East Pre­ston Street build­ing pro­vides a good ex­am­ple of how the pro­gram can achieve that goal, he said. In Novem­ber, Pathik Rami, who is listed as the prop­erty’s owner in city records, hired an in­spec­tor to con­duct the build­ing’s ini­tial in­spec­tion. It failed for elec­tri­cal prob­lems and no smoke de­tec­tors, the in­spec­tion re­port states. A Christ­mas Eve rein­spec­tion yielded a pass­ing grade.

The city would later de­cide that the pri­vate in­spec­tor missed some things. But the in­spec­tor cor­rectly noted that the prop­erty con­tains four units, each with a bath­room and a kitchen. That raised a red flag for city of­fi­cials, be­cause the build­ing’s vol­un­tary an­nual regis­tra­tion had clas­si­fied it as a sin­gle-fam­ily dwelling since 2012.

Sur­prised that the house passed in­spec­tion, Whynn’s first-floor neigh­bor, Michelle Rosario, called 311. A gov­ern­ment in­spec­tor vis­ited Jan. 22 and is­sued 14 vi­o­la­tions, in­clud­ing that it has no fire es­cape (a re­quire­ment the city failed to in­clude on its check­list). The other vi­o­la­tions were for de­fec­tive ceil­ings and walls due to wa­ter dam­age, for un­sta­ble stair rail­ings and for “op­er­at­ing a room­ing house or other mul­ti­ple dwelling with­out a proper li­cense,” ac­cord­ing to the city in­spec­tor’s re­port.

The prop­erty “lacks proper per­mit for present use of build­ing,” it states.

Un­der the city’s old rules, Rami could have got­ten a new rental li­cense be­fore he cor­rected any of the prob­lems. The new reg­u­la­tions elim­i­nate that flex­i­bil­ity. Prop­er­ties with out­stand­ing vi­o­la­tions can­not ob­tain a li­cense. Rami said he could fix the vi­o­la­tions but that his main­te­nance work­ers are afraid to en­ter the build­ing be­cause he says one of Whynn’s male friends has threat­ened them. He added that he is ad­dress­ing the ci­ta­tions and the lack of a re­quired lead safety cer­tifi­cate.

He called Whynn and Rosario “pro­fes­sional ten­ants” who have not paid rent for months and are work­ing the sys­tem to stay longer by call­ing 311. He also says he asked Whynn and Rosario to move out, but they re­fused.

Rami agreed lst week to set­tle Whynn’s rent escrow court ac­tion by let­ting her pay $400 for Jan­uary and Fe­bru­ary, but then he wants her out. Rosario’s rent escrow com­plaint against Rami’s com­pany, PR Cap­i­tal, was dis­missed in De­cem­ber af­ter she failed to de­posit rent into the court’s cof­fers. That re­sulted in a de­fault judg­ment against her for Rami’s fail­ure-to-pay-rent claim seek­ing $1,440.

Shah, who rep­re­sented Rosario, asked for a new trial be­cause Rami has rented the build­ing with­out a proper li­cense, but a judge re­fused. He is ap­peal­ing that de­ci­sion, but Rosario on Wed­nes­day re­ceived an evic­tion no­tice. “Michelle Rosario took a stand against sub­stan­dard hous­ing con­di­tions and her un­li­censed land­lord,” Shah said. “But the le­gal sys­tem failed her.”

Last year, the City Coun­cil re­jected mea­sures to pro­vide as­sis­tance to ten­ants with re­lo­ca­tion costs if they were forced out of “un­li­censed, dan­ger­ous prop­er­ties.” But Pub­lic Jus­tice Cen­ter and Bal­ti­more Renters United push for such fund­ing.

“Where am I go­ing to go?” said Rosario, 48. “If I have to leave, I’ll be home­less.” The ten­ants in the build­ing’s other two units de­clined to be in­ter­viewed for this ar­ti­cle.

With a few mi­nor re­pairs the house could be hab­it­able, Rosario says. As it is, she has wedged wood planks against her back door to pre­vent al­ley-prowl­ing ad­dicts from break­ing into a back room she keeps empty be­cause of wa­ter leaks cited by the city in­spec­tor.

John Grasso, a for­mer Anne Arun­del County coun­cil­man who owns about 300 rental units in Bal­ti­more, says he warned city of­fi­cials that the new rules could put some ten­ants on the street. “I threw peo­ple out be­cause I couldn’t make the dead­line” for in­spec­tions, Grasso said. That’s what the city gets for im­pos­ing more reg­u­la­tions, he said.

When the city pro­posed a 21-point check­list for in­spec­tors, land­lords protested. Three re­vi­sions later, both sides agreed to the 12-point process, in­clud­ing check­ing for smoke de­tec­tors; safe elec­tri­cal out­lets; hot and cold run­ning wa­ter; heat; elec­tric­ity; and ac­tive and me­tered gas ser­vice.

Ten­ant ad­vo­cates com­plain that the changes catered to land­lords by re­mov­ing “in­te­rior clean­li­ness” and lack of ro­dent in­fes­ta­tion from the list of re­quire­ments for pass­ing in­spec­tion. Those two stan­dards are in­stead on a “re­fer­ral” list, al­low­ing in­spec­tors to give a pass­ing grade to a rental de­spite those is­sues while re­fer­ring the prop­erty for fol­low-up. Li­censes can be is­sued be­fore city of­fi­cials check up on such re­ferred items.

In­fes­ta­tion and clean­li­ness, Shah said, “are the two most im­por­tant con­cerns that low-in­come renters have.”

Grasso, mean­while, faults the list for re­quir­ing util­i­ties; he says not all ten­ants want them. “Who is the gov­ern­ment to tell peo­ple they have to have util­i­ties in their places? Maybe ten­ants don’t want gas and elec­tric turned on,” he said. “There are plenty of peo­ple who don’t want to deal with those com­pa­nies. They want run­ning wa­ter and a roof over their head and that’s it.”

Some ad­vo­cates ex­pressed con­cern that land­lords might hire pri­vate in­spec­tors with whom they have had an on­go­ing pro­fes­sional re­la­tion­ship. Pri­vate in­spec­tors in­ter­viewed by The Sun said their liveli­hood de­pends on their pro­fes­sional ob­jec­tiv­ity. They said they would not risk los­ing their state-is­sued li­censes by cut­ting cor­ners for some­one. The li­censes are a pre­req­ui­site for their pri­mary source of busi­ness, in­spec­tions sought in con­nec­tion with home sales.

“I’m re­ally there for both of them — the land­lords and the ten­ants,” said Nikki Mar­latt-Young, owner of the in­spec­tion busi­ness AEHI.

Mar­latt-Young has worked for years for a com­pany called Peace of Mind Prop­erty Man­age­ment when it is buy­ing homes. But when she con­ducted the city in­spec­tion of one of its un­oc­cu­pied rentals in South­west Bal­ti­more, she failed it for not hav­ing smoke and car­bon monox­ide de­tec­tors. Weeks later she ac­com­pa­nied Peace of Mind’s owner for a rein­spec­tion.

In­side, all good. But the back­yard? “Oh, no,” said Mar­latt-Young. Pos­si­ble rat bur­row. “You’re go­ing to have to fill that in.”

Mar­latt-Young ap­plauds the city, say­ing she be­lieves the pro­gram is prod­ding land­lords to im­prove their prop­er­ties. “I see a lot of clean­ing up go­ing on,” she said. “It will do good for the own­ers and the renters.”

No way, says Frank Hock, a land­lord with 26 prop­er­ties. The process will only de­ter in­vestors from buy­ing in Bal­ti­more, he says, ex­ac­er­bat­ing the short­age of af­ford­able hous­ing.

“The city keeps putting more costs on the land­lords,” Hock said. “To­day, the ten­ants have all the rights and the land­lords don’t have a chance.”

WINDY AND COLDER

SUN IN­VES­TI­GATES

KARL MER­TON FERRON/BAL­TI­MORE SUN

Ten­ants Michelle Rosario, right, and Amina Whynn, hold­ing 4-month old daugh­ter A’Mia Gar­ris, in Rosario's apart­ment on East Pre­ston Street.

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