BALTIMORE – Stuff is “definitely collecting” at some Baltimore vacant and deteriorating rental properties, said Jim Hochradel, Baltimore Service Committee chair and village council member.
He, Mayor Bob Kalish, Village Administrator Marsha Hall, and Police Chief Michael Tussey hosted roughly 50 property owners Tuesday night at the Liberty Union-Thurston Elementary School to discuss rental property maintenance. The number of complaints about mismanaged or vacant rental properties is growing significantly, which strains property values and the village’s budget as its service department is often charged with cleaning up dirty and damaged abandoned properties. The hosts were clear that most landlords are maintaining their properties responsibly, but problem properties are increasing. Tussey pointed out that vacant properties have potential risks, particularly to children.
“This is costing us real dollars,” said Hochradel. “Maybe we can restore some pride in Baltimore.” He said one of the first steps, and a low cost solution, is Baltimore Clean Up Day, May 7, that allows residents to get rid of junk, including brush, at no additional cost. Items that will not be picked up include liquid paint, car parts and batteries, tires, and other hazardous waste.
Hochradel said nearly 40 percent of Baltimore properties are rentals, with roughly 190 people owning them. “That’s quite an investment you people have in the village,” he said. “This whole (effort) is about saving money.”
Tussey said property owners whose renters are violating rental contracts are calling him. “There’s a misconception that’s something the police can handle,” he said. Tussey said if renters vandalize a property (in retribution for an eviction, for example) or if something is stolen, police can intervene. “We can’t recover rent,” he said. “Most of the people who own rentals take good care of them.” However, sometimes people move out and leave hazardous materials such as batteries, chemicals, and paint behind. Often, children will enter the property and become exposed to the hazardous material, or use paint they find at the property for graffiti. “We know who owns which houses in town,” said Tussey, and property owners are notified when there’s a problem.
But, he said, the village is having difficulty with absentee landlords who live out of town or out of state. “They say, ‘I don’t live there and it’s not my problem,” said Tussey. He said Baltimore police officers patrol heavily and have a list of problem properties. “If you have an issue, give us a call,” said Tussey. “We can at least refer you to the right person.”
The problem used to be mainly high weeds and garbage, but now entire properties are trashed, said Hall. She said the village runs into problems when the banks take over properties. The transfer of ownership can be slow, and it takes a long time for the banks to send someone to maintain the property. Often, the village does the job. Hall said the village uses the same property maintenance code as most other communities. Baltimore’s current property management program is complaint driven, meaning the village will inspect a property once it receives a complaint about it.
The village can accept complaints via email, letters, or phone calls (including anonymous phone calls). She said the village first sends a warning letter, a final notice, then, if the property remains a problem, village and county legal entities become involved.
Hall said the village received 30 property complaints in 2008. That number increased to 67 in 2010 and most complaints were about vacant or rental properties. “It doubled from the year before in rentals,” she said. “We’ve been increasing every year. I could spend all day doing nothing but inspections.”
Hall said the village is trying to help landlords through education, assistance, and enforcement. She said the village is educating by being willing to bring in guest speakers to help and by publishing a property ordinance and services manual called “The Guide for Good Neighbors.” The village is assisting by sponsoring events like the Residential Clean Up Days and Baltimore is enforcing the code by making it easy to register a property maintenance complaint with the village.
Kalish invited the public to ask the panel questions following Hall’s presentation. A property owner wanted to know why some properties and streets look like “used car lots.” Tussey said he hopes to be able to enforce parking in the entire right of way, not just the street. He said many people park the wrong direction on streets, which poses safety issues, and many large Baltimore homes were originally built for extended families. Now these homes are being rented to several individuals, all with their own cars.
Hall said a vehicle must be licensed and operational to be parked on a village street.
A property owner said people need to know that the property maintenance codes are being enforced fairly no one is being “picked on.” Hall said she investigates complaints and doesn’t randomly pick and choose properties to inspect. “Most people only complain when it becomes a real issue,” she said.
Hochradel said he doesn’t think property owners and residents want the village “looking over their shoulders,” watching for violations, which is why inspections are handled on a complaint basis.
A property owner said the village should require people to give their names when they issue complaints so they aren’t issued simply out of spite. Hall said since she’s the only person administrating inspections, she can tell which complaints are actually personal matters. She said she’s mediated several neighborhood disputes. “I’ve never had a complaint that’s not legitimate,” said Hall. She keeps a running file of complaints and anyone can request a copy. “I’m required by law to keep who made the complaint,” said Hall.
Kalish said the village may organize more meetings similar to Tuesday night’s, adding that he appreciated the attendance and people’s willingness to participate. “We’d like to partner with you,” he said. “It’s important we start a dialogue.”