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The Tentacle


October 16, 2002

Another Slam At The Affordable Housing Problem

John W. Ashbury

It isnít a wise idea to write a column when you are angry. But sometimes events dictate what has to be done. And this is one of those times.

At a workshop this afternoon, the mayor and Board of Aldermen will discuss a proposal which, if approved, will raise the price of affordable rental housing in The City of Frederick - again. It is entirely unnecessary.

Vinnie Hughes, the chief operations officer for Citizens Services, is proposing the institution of a residential rental licensing fee, which, when using the statistics provided by him to the aldermen, will generate $927,600 for the city every year. He says that with these funds the city will be able to hire eight new code enforcement officers, "provide them with new cars, new computers, and office equipment and other necessary items." That breaks down to $115,950 per hire.

Mr. Hughes lists 12 items that will be inspected annually by the Code Enforcement Office. Generally these items need to be inspected regularly.

They are!

By the landlord or his representative.

Some of the items are going to be impossible to inspect without doing considerable damage to the property. Example: "Every plumbing fixture and water and sewer pipe should be in good working order." How are they going to inspect the pipes within the walls? And how about the inspection of the sewer pipes? Are they going to dig up those lines all the way to the street?

The primary problem with Mr. Hughesí list is that the condition of each and every item will be based solely on the subjective opinion of the inspector. And Mr. Hughes does not provide any detail on any remedy to that opinion - other than repair by the owner of the property.

Mr. Hughes says in his cover letter to the aldermen that the program "will protect real estate investors and ensure all rental properties comply with minimum BOCA standards." Hogwash!

Most rental properties in the city already comply with minimum BOCA standards. And where does the city get off saying it "will protect real estate investors." That is not the cityís job.

This idea will create another intrusion into the private lives of people already investing in this community. It will add costs to the operations of rental housing, and, thus, will increase the cost to the tenants for those rental properties.

But what will be the cost to the community? What will happen if the landlords just board up their properties? What happens to the tenants if the landlord convert the property back to a single family dwelling and sell it?

Many of the rental properties in the city are in the Historic District. Those properties cannot be made to conform to BOCA regulations and requirements, even with Historic District Commission approval. Simply put, the HDC guidelines and BOCA do not see eye to eye and conformity would be next to impossible.

Right now the HDC is so stringent in some areas that making improvements is nearly impossible. For example, how many downtown properties do you think have bedrooms with irregular windows which are greater than 44 inches from the floor? Or, how many screens will be installed on inoperable windows because the cityís code inspectorís check list requires that all windows will require screens for protection against mosquitoes, flies and other insects?

Part of the argument for instituting a residential rental license fee is to protect other property owners who claim that some landlords are not properly maintaining their properties. In the majority of cases of absentee property ownership, the properties are well maintained. It is only the outrageous few who are causing the problem. No real estate investor wants to see the value of his investment decline. And by not maintaining the property, that will happen.

The city has but two code enforcement officers currently on the payroll. They have a massive workload and are unable to keep up with the demands of their job. This license fee proposal will provide the cash needed to hire additional people WITHOUT dipping into other revenue sources. All city officials will tell you that the city is strapped financially. But this is not a proper way to increase revenues. This will cause reduced investment in our city - not more.

But, with the projected number of units at 9,276 divided by eight code enforcement officers ("C.E.O.") divided by 250 working days(50 weeks times 5 days per week), this would mean that each C.E.O. would need to maintain a schedule of 4.6 units per day plus keep up with the paperwork and the follow up for any infractions.

Although Mr. Hughes claims that Hagerstown already has such a license fee, they donít. There has been an ongoing battle there that seems far from resolution.

Frederick cannot afford to have another running battle for the next year or so. The mayor and the board have the authority to institute this, but they will not like what they - personally - will get in return.

Rightfully, the property managers in the city up in arms, and there is no doubt that the entire real estate industry will be if this proposal is adopted.

There will be more here in the coming days on this residential rental licensing fee. Stay tuned!



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