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Holding Landlords Accountable

Melissa Archer, MD Dept. of Housing & Community Development

More than half of the rental units in Baltimore City are one and two-family homes, according to a study by the University of Maryland Carey School of Law. And the owners of those properties aren’t held to the same standards as the owners of multi-family units, which can create problems for the tenants.

Take, for example, the case of Kia Rogers, a single mother of two.

Two years ago she found a house in Northwest Baltimore for rent on Craigslist.

“It looked like a decent livable house," Rogers said. "The pictures, it looked clean. It looked livable.”

It wasn't until after she'd paid the $675 security deposit, the first month's rent and moved in that she discovered a problem.

“I could not have my electricity turned on until the inspectors came out and inspected it," she recounted.

Baltimore Gas & Electric informed Rogers that the power lline into the house had been cut and it was her landlord’s responsibility to get a permit to repair it and restore electricity. But Rogers says her landlord wouldn’t do it.

“His favorite thing to say to me is that it’s not his fault," she said.

Rogers and her children—one of whom is on the Autism spectrum—lived without electricity for almost two weeks until they finally left the house to couch surf at friends’ homes for three months.

"Moving place to place with my son being autistic," Rogers said., "you know he doesn’t do well with change.”

Moving also took a toll on her family’s finances. She had to drive more to get the kids to school, and eat out more.

Deborah Weimer, a professor at the University of Maryland’s Carey Law School, works with students at the school’s Landlord Tenant Legal Clinic, which provides legal assistance to people like Rogers. She says cases like these are all too common.

“Right now landlords—especially in these one and two family dwellings—have no accountability what so ever," said Weimer. "And so it is going to take a major change to enforce this legislation.”

The change she’s talking about is in a bill making its way through the City Council now. It would require landlords with one or two tenants to meet the same requirements as landlords with multiple tenants. Their buildings would have to pass a state inspection, acquire a license and renew it every year. Landlords would also be responsible for making repairs like the electrical line at the house Rogers rented.

More than half the city council members are sponsoring the bill, which also would require information on those landlords to go into a city database.

“If you looked up an address in the city right now you can see if there is an active code violation which means somebody in that house had to call the city and said I have a problem," Weimer said.

She said she would like to see that database be even more transparent so tenants can learn about code violations like lead paint and past reports of failed inspections. She also said tenants who are at risk of being homeless and landlords who need help with repairs should receive financial assistance from the city

“Perhaps like a revolving fund to make repairs and pay it back," Weimer suggested. "There needs to be some creative ideas that I would love to see the city pursue.”

So that people like Rogers are not couch surfing and homeless.

“If you are paying your rent you should have a place that’s suitable to live," Rogers said.  "You slum lords out there need to look at the person and the families. These are families that you are doing this to. It’s just not a thing about money, but we are people too.”

The bill received preliminary approval Monday night and is expected to come up for a final vote next month.

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