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City Council Members Introduce Bills To Reclassify OEM As Independent Agency, Close Housing Loophole

Vacant houses in Baltimore's Upton neighborhood.  On Monday night, Councilwoman Odette Ramos introduced legislation to ensure that contractors who convert vacant properties into habitable dwellings obtain an occupancy permit before they may sell them.
Emily Sullivan/WYPR
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Vacant houses in Baltimore's Upton neighborhood. On Monday night, Councilwoman Odette Ramos introduced legislation to ensure that contractors who convert vacant properties into habitable dwellings obtain an occupancy permit before they may sell them.

The Baltimore City Council held a virtual meeting Monday night, in which councilmembers introduced a series of new bills to close property law loopholes and reclassify the Office of Emergency Management as an independent agency.

Councilwoman Odette Ramos introduced a bill to require certain disclosures in order to sell a building that was formerly issued a vacant building notice.

Ramos said the bill came out of the work she’s done over the past few weeks to help residents stay off of the upcoming tax sale list. She noticed that a few of her constituents lived in homes that were previously vacant and converted into habitable dwellings but did not have occupancy permits, which causes a slew of legal issues.

“And so a vacant building notice ends up being with the new homeowner who then has to work all of that out to try to get the vacant building notice abated and apply for the use and occupancy,” she said. “It's a huge obstacle because the new homeowner's contractor isn't going to sign off on work through another contractor.”

The bill would mandate that home sellers get an occupancy permit before they may sell a property, as well as disclose to buyers whether a property has previously been classified as vacant. Council President Nick Mosby assigned the legislation to the Economic and Community Development Committee.

Councilman Mark Conway introduced a bill to reclassify the Office of Emergency Management as an independent agency. The department coordinates government responses to Baltimore’s most trying moments: major fires, natural disasters and pandemics.

Yet the office’s structure is unwieldy and often frustrating, Conway said.

“It is housed in the mayor’s office, funded by the fire department, and has a confusing chain of command that can hamper decision-making,” he said, pointing to the emergency operations plan, which has not been updated since 2013.

“Making OEM an independent agency will allow the office to be more nimble both in preparation and in response to emergencies. It will simplify the chain of command and how decisions get made, a fundamental need for an office that often deals with fast-moving events that can threaten lives, homes and businesses,” he said.

The freshman Democrat’s legislation proposes that the mayor nominate an executive director of the agency, to be confirmed by the governor. The bill also would require the OEM to update the emergency operations plan every four years and to submit an annual report to the mayor and city council that details the type of emergencies it responded to and the activities it conducted. The council would also gain the ability to legislate policy for the office — they are unable to do so for mayoral offices.

If passed, the bill, assigned to the Public Safety & Government Operations committee, would go into effect in July of 2022.

Councilmembers Ryan Dorsey, Zeke Cohen and Kristerfer Burnett introduced a bill to require that the Baltimore City Department of Public Works study the feasibility of implementing an expedited reimbursement and direct assistance program for sewage backup.

Cohen’s Neighbors Against Predatory Dumping Act, which would double the first-time fees for illegal dumping citations, passed from second to third reader, as did a bill introduced on behalf of Comptroller Bill Henry to modernize the city’s real estate records.