BERLIN — In an effort to bring a few recalcitrant landlords into line, the Mayor and Town Council began deliberations this week on how to finesse the town code to make it harder for non-compliant or unregistered businesses to operate as they have been. The expectation is that there will be a way to do this without also punishing compliant landlords.
At the end of a special work session on the matter Monday, the council directed David Gaskill, the town attorney, Mark Tilghman, the planning and zoning board attorney and Chuck Ward, town director of planning and zoning, to draft a plan requiring all landlords to have licenses.
They also will draw up proposed standards that would be applicable to all rental properties, not only the multi-family units that are at the center of the move toward legislation.
The council’s wish was to make rules specific to the multi-family dwellings but staff suggested they start with rules covering all rentals and work backwards from there.
Although outlawed in the town code, many old houses that were converted to multi-family dwellings before the law was passed were grandfathered in. As such, it has always been difficult for the town to legislate or enforce rules particular to them, even though many of the problems — such as poor maintenance and insufficient parking for residents — are specific to multi-family dwellings.
“I want to see a proposed solution that we can go through,” Mayor Gee Williams said. “That seems to be the obviously fist thing we’ve got to do.”
Under the proposed draft, which will surely undergo several revisions before it is considered for final passage, the town can circumvent the grandfather clause by establishing a landlord license not radically different from the business licenses landlords are required to hold now.
By imposing landlord licensing, the town may establish a standard that is a higher for multi-family dwellings. Like business licenses the landlord licenses will likely be renewable annually and will take the place of the requirement that landlords have businesses licenses.
The plan would then make it possible to enforce any new rules placed on rental homes by enforcing inspections annually for houses that do not meet the newly established code.
At the suggestion of Tilghman, the council also directed that an appeals process be established for landlords who do not agree with citations. The town already has a housing board of review but the body has not had a call to meet in years.
This would likely be the first line of appeal if the new rules are established, and, as always, the business owners would have recourse in the Circuit Court of Maryland.
The council also directed that the draft be applicable to all residential zoning districts, so the rules could be applied if the character of any of the current neighborhoods changes.
“I think we’ve got to learn to do this … as wisely as we can,” Williams said of the process. He worried about the instances or even the appearances of unfair legislation and stressed that any rules be applicable to all but address only the few problems created by some.
“Those properties always stick out, regardless,” Ward said. “If the code were, for example, changed… if people are parking in the grass then landlords would be required to put in a driveway.”
Parking in the grass for lack of a more convenient place to park was one of the council’s primary concerns at the work session. While they recognized that many single-family homes have front driveways and that some without driveways use their front lawns, the difficulty with multi-family residences is the number of cars parked on the lawn before the house.
The council also directed Town Administrator Tony Carson to investigate which homes were occupied by renters in town and which were owner-occupied. Several council members expressed concern that some landlords didn’t have business licenses and would thus remain under the radar as the new rules were debated and possible put into effect.
A second work session is slated for 6 p.m. Monday, Aug. 14 during which the council will further hone the proposals by Gaskill, Tilghman and Ward, possibly sending them back for further revisions and scheduling more work sessions before beginning to draft legislation.
Williams admitted that there were many more code enforcement issues beyond the multi-family dwellings that required addressing but insisted the town would be better off taking small steps toward a final goal than trying to do too much at once and failing.