In August 2018, a major overhaul of Baltimore city regulations governing landlords and their properties started requiring all rental buildings in the city to pass a health and safety inspection before being granted temporary two-year licenses.
But now, the Baltimore Sun reported yesterday, landlords and tenant advocates alike fear low-income tenants will be subject to a wave of evictions due to the tight timeline for inspections and array of requirements. Some landlords flat-out admitted it.
“I threw people out because I couldn’t make the deadline [for inspections],” said John Grasso, a former Anne Arundel County councilman who owns about 300 rental units in Baltimore, according to the Sun.
Previously, the Sun reported, city government inspected and licensed only the multi-family buildings (those with three or more units), of which there were approximately 5,700. That excluded the estimated 66,400 single-family and two-unit homes that make up more than half of the city’s rental market and generate the bulk of tenant complaints to 311.
Under the new guidelines that took effect last August, landlords had until the end of 2018 to get their units inspected.
From the start, the rollout of the new regulations was not well publicized, according to housing organizers.
“We haven’t talked to any renters that really knew about it besides the folks that were working on this bill,” said K.C. Kelleher, at the time digital organizer for the grassroots advocacy nonprofit Communities United, whose volunteers had been knocking on doors in South and West Baltimore informing renters of the change, according to Baltimore Fishbowl (Kelleher now works for Baltimore City Councilmember Bill Henry, who sponsored the legislation).
In addition, as one longtime buildings inspector penned in an op-ed for the Sun, many had issues with the list of licensing requirements, explaining that some of them are “absurd.” For example, in multi-family buildings, a home inspector must establish that “there is proper fire separation between dwellings, hallways and staircases.”
“I don’t see how even Superman with his X-ray vision could do this,” the buildings inspector wrote. “A home inspector will either have to drill holes in many multifamily walls or fraudulently sign off on this checklist item, knowing that someday they might be named among the negligent parties that contributed to the fire deaths of several people.”
In an op-ed penned for Baltimore Brew, a set of housing organizers, including one from Communities United, warned of “collateral damage” under the new regulations.
“If you increase the City’s power to shut down substandard properties through revoking rental licenses, you may also spike the number of evictions in Baltimore,” they wrote.
If a license is revoked and a property is deemed unsafe, the op-ed pointed out, the city can order the removal all occupants from that property within 24 hours — even if these occupants have no new housing. The op-ed called for Mayor Catherine Pugh and Baltimore City Council to earmark at least $100,000 for relocation assistance related to units taken out of service under the new regulations.
According to the Sun, the city is holding off intense enforcement for a few more months.
Even if the issues with health and safety requirements and relocation assistance can be resolved, the city’s track record of enforcing housing codes leaves much to be desired, especially from the tenant perspective. The Sun has previously reported on lax enforcement of existing rental housing codes, as well as a yearlong investigation of how judges in housing court are much more likely to rule in favor of landlords, even when city inspectors testify about persistent violations.
UPDATE: We’ve updated this article to reflect that K.C. Kelleher moved to a new position after being quoted by the Baltimore Fishbowl last year.
Oscar is editor of Next City. Before that, he was a Next City contributing writer and 2015-2016 Equitable Cities Fellow. Since 2011, Oscar has covered community development finance, community banking, impact investing, equitable and inclusive economies, affordable housing, fair housing and more for media outlets such as Shelterforce, B Magazine, Impact Alpha, and Fast Company.