A new law took effect in Baltimore on Aug. 1 requiring landlords to have all of their properties inspected—not just those with three or more units—by the end of this year. But are renters aware?
Not according to K.C. Kelleher, digital organizer for grassroots advocacy nonprofit Communities United, whose volunteers have been knocking on doors in South and West Baltimore informing renters of the change. “We haven’t talked to any renters that really knew about it besides the folks that were working on this bill.”
About a half-dozen volunteers with Communities United and Jews United for Justice posted up outside Baltimore City’s rent court Thursday morning to let local tenants know about their rights under the new law. Baltimore has nearly 100,000 renters, according to Communities United. The legislation, which was introduced as a bill by Councilman Bill Henry, includes a list of items that inspections must cover for their dwellings.
All landlords must have their properties examined by a state-licensed inspector registered with the city’s Department of Housing and Community Development, with a deadline of Jan. 1, 2019. Agency spokeswoman Tammy Hawley said in an email Thursday that 255 licensed inspectors have registered with the city.
Volunteers this morning passed out flyers reading, “WHEN’S YOUR INSPECTION?” listing some of the required areas, from leaks, basic utilities and general sanitation to pests and chipping paint.
Pernetha Taylor, a volunteer with Communities United and a renter herself, said the city helped relocate her to an apartment building after living for two months in a home in the Baltimore Highlands neighborhood that turned out to be infested with rats and mice.
Her current building doesn’t offer superb conditions either, she said, but she hopes that the new law will spur improvements “eventually.” She said few fellow renters know about the changes, “but everyone will know today,” and added, “in my apartment building they will.”
The legislation created a tiered system that incentivizes landlords to be responsive to tenants’ complaints. Properties that pass inspection over the next four months will receive a two-year license. Thereafter, those who show they’ve fixed any housing code violations—the proprietors Kelleher refers to as “good landlords”—will receive three-year renewals if changes are made within 60 days, or two-year renewals if the fixes are made within 90 days.
Landlords who take longer will receive a renewal for just one year, and will have to pay an increased fee of $15 per dwelling unit or room, with the fees going to the city’s Affordable Housing Trust fund. Violating the new law is a misdemeanor punishable with a fine of up to $500.
Heightening inspection requirements for all rental properties in Baltimore raises the possibility that owners will raise their rent, passing the costs off to tenants. Kelleher acknowledged that possibility, saying, “We understand it’s a cost, but we don’t think it’s so big that it will be adverse to their profit. It’s a basic level of maintenance, really.”
The new law leaves some gaps. For one, renters’ advocates have complained that even if the revamped system punishes bad landlords, it doesn’t provide for the relocation of tenants when a property is rejected for licensure. Kelleher noted the human rights nonprofit United Workers is pushing legislation to fund the Affordable Housing Trust. She said if it was “actually funded, that could help maybe with some relocation assistance.”
The required inspections also don’t cover the common issue of mold, something Melissa Knotts, of the Clay Courts complex in East Baltimore’s Gay Street neighborhood, said her property owners failed to properly treat in a bathroom of her three-bedroom home when they simply “sealed it up.”
“I treat it with Awesome [cleaner] and bleach as much as I can to try to keep it from coming down and turning all black,” she said outside the courthouse.
Kelleher said “mold is a big thing that was left off” in the legislation, but noted renters can still use the inspection process to notify their landlord about the issue. She pointed to the last question on the inspection sheet, which asks if there are issues “that in the inspector’s opinion represent an immediate threat to the health or safety of the occupant.”
Matt Vocci, a Towson-based attorney who was there to support volunteers, said about 80 percent of his practice is tenants’ rights cases, including mold, water leaks and clients being charged excessive late fees or other penalties. He hopes the new law will help mitigate many of the common issues he sees, and improve oversight of rental housing.
He referenced a stricter system for punishing non-responsive landlords that was implemented in St. Paul, Minnesota, as “a model that’s something to strive for.”
“The inspections are needed, and real strong inspections are needed,” he said. “It’s a shame when I walk in somewhere that I know has been inspected for various reasons, and I can see things right off the bat.”
This story has been updated.