Homelessness and Housing
Too many Baltimore tenants endure mice, mold and more, councilmen say
Calking the city not proactive enough, they have drafted a bill that would impose consequences on apartment buildings with a documented history of unsafe, unhealthy conditions
Above: Councilman James Torrence speaks with a distraught Temple Gardens resident, Elaine Nichols. (Fern Shen)
Standing in front of three Reservoir Hill apartment buildings where tenants have long reported rats, roaches, mold, broken elevators and more, Baltimore City Council members Zeke Cohen and James Torrence explained why a new law is needed to police this chronic citywide problem.
They are proposing that large (20 units or more) apartment buildings with a history of violations would go on a “priority dwelling” list subjecting them to more frequent housing inspections.
Buildings on the list would be required to pay a fee for every unit for every year they remain on the list.
“Let me be clear: This is not an anti-landlord bill. This is an anti-slumlord bill,” said Cohen, addressing reporters outside The Emersonian at 2525 Eutaw Place yesterday.
“For the handful of slum landlords that poison our neighbors with lead and mold, that refuse to fix broken elevators or invest in maintenance,” he continued, “let me also be clear: We will find you, we will fine you, and if you refuse to come into compliance we will remove your license to operate in Baltimore.”
A rental licensing overhaul that came out of the Council five years ago was supposed to solve this problem.
But it ended up more “carrot” than “stick,” rewarding landlords who fix violations promptly and pass their inspections with a less frequent inspection schedule.
“This is not an anti-landlord bill, this is an anti-slumlord bill” – Councilman Zeke Cohen.
The inspections may be conducted by private third-party contractors, accountable only to the landlords who are paying them, and are thus incentivized to “cook the books,” according to Cohen.
Inspections are not happening frequently enough to put a dent in the problem, Cohen and Torrence argued, faulting the Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) for blaming bad conditions on the lack of inspectors.
“It’s not acceptable for an agency to say, ‘We don’t have enough inspectors,’ but then not come and make the ask during the budget season,” Cohen chided.
Torrence, who represents West Baltimore’s 7th District, said he has come to understand the flaws in the current system because he and his staff “have had to personally start triaging poor housing by sitting in a person’s residence and filing 311 complaints.”
“We need a process that is different. Not just resident-driven, but a process that will be proactive in identifying these buildings,” he continued. “We can’t allow people to sit and feel powerless when the city can do better.”
Asked why some residents don’t report substandard conditions, Torrence, who noted that he grew up in public housing, said he understands.
“We can’t allow people to sit and feel powerless when the city can do better” – Councilman James Torrence.
“The people that often feel powerless have multiple jobs. They’re either low-income, or persons who are scared of just being evicted,” he observed. “This is where we as a city government have to step in and say, ‘We’re going to be powerful enough to be here on your behalf.’”
Doing so is necessary even though it will be more burdensome for city agencies.
“When enough of you say something, it’s time for us to act and not just wait for the entire building to call,” Torrence said. “If five residents trigger it, we have to come out and inspect every unit.”
Developer: No Response
Roizman & Associates, of Plymouth Meeting, PA., did not respond to a phone call and email seeking comment.
Entities associated with the company own The Emersonian and nearby Temple Gardens and The Esplanade, all located within view of Druid Lake.
These once grand structures were stripped of many of their unique architectural features in the 1990s, despite the protests of activists and preservationists.
City housing officials yesterday provided a brief statement in response to the announcement of Cohen and Torrence’s bill.
Spokeswoman Tammy Hawley said the agency “works daily to ensure safe living conditions for all residents through code enforcement activities.”
“We, like all city agencies,” she added, work with the budget office “every year during the budget cycle to identify opportunities for increased funding.”
“Bad List” Criteria
Under Council Bill 23-0375, properties would be added to the priority list if they face two of the following in a calendar year:
• Habitability violations such as heating, plumbing, roof leaks, structural deficiencies, bedbugs or rodents that go unabated for more than 60 days.
• Elevator or lead paint violations that last more than 30 days.
• A high number of 311 calls for housing inspections.
• Operating under a one-year renewal license.
• A low inspection score from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The bill would also create a rental licensing and inspection task force to provide oversight of rental inspections and require landlords to distribute inspection reports to tenants and provide an active rental license to current and prospective tenants.
Rats in the Stove
Elaine Nichols, a 68-year-old retired nurse, recounted her experiences as a Temple Gardens tenant since 1996.
In the last five years, management responsiveness has notably declined. Insects and rodents are a constant presence in the apartment she shares with her 14-year-old granddaughter.
“My apartment is infested with mice running [around] like ants,” she said.
Her current problem, she said, is that she is still living in an apartment damaged in a November fire caused by a stove she had asked management to replace.
Conditions from the fire and water leaks have exacerbated the chronic asthma symptoms that she and her granddaughter experience.
Yet neither Roizman & Associates nor city officials have helped her find somewhere else to live.
“You come in there you can smell the mold,” she said, tears welling. “I’m still in there after the fire. And the doctors told me to leave. But I have nowhere else to go.”