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The Montgomery County Council voted unanimously on Tuesday to pass what Council Member Gabe Albornoz called “groundbreaking” tenants’ rights legislation.

The bill requires landlords to pay relocation expenses for tenants forced to leave units condemned by the county’s Department of Housing and Community Affairs (DHCA).

Housing can be condemned for a variety of violations, from unsanitary conditions to a lack of safe exits. Once a unit is condemned, inhabitants must leave until the necessary fixes are made.

Council Member Will Jawando, the lead sponsor of the legislation, described it as an important effort to protect some of the county’s most vulnerable residents. Housing condemnations are rare — DHCA recorded 155 cases in fiscal 2018, according to data supplied by the department — but jarring for tenants suddenly forced to leave their homes, he said.

“I was thinking a lot about the trauma Montgomery County residents face when they live in a home or apartment and it’s condemned as unfit for human habitation,” he added during Tuesday’s meeting. “Imagine if you woke up this morning to a knock on the door from DHCA and they said, ‘You’re not allowed to live here anymore.’”

The bill requires landlords to pay relocation expenses for permanently or temporarily displaced residents in units condemned by the DHCA, which handles code enforcement for the county’s rental housing. For permanently displaced residents — those forced to relocate for 30 days or more — a landlord must pay whichever is greater: three months of the tenant’s actual rent or three months of the fair market rent value for the unit’s ZIP code, as defined by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Landlords must pay within 72 hours after a condemnation notice is posted. The bill also requires them to return the tenant’s security deposit and any prorated rent for the remainder of the month.

For temporarily displaced residents — defined as 30 days or less — landlords must provide alternative housing and pay to move their tenants within 24 hours after a condemnation notice is posted. If the substitute housing is not directly comparable to a tenant’s former unit, landlords are required to pay an allowance determined by the department.

After the original housing is repaired, landlords must pay to move the tenants back and draft a new lease similar to the previous agreement — in duration and rent, according to the bill.

If any tenant is forced to move with less than 30 days’ notice, the landlord must pay an additional month’s rent or provide alternative housing for a month.

In testimony on the bill in July, then-Acting DHCA Director Tim Goetzinger said that would virtually always be the case.

“In fact, tenants must immediately move out of a condemned unit,” he said during comments in support of the bill.

DHCA Director Aseem Nigam took over for Goetzinger in August.

The bill was finalized after a lengthy debate in the council’s Planning, Housing and Economic Development (PHED) Committee.

Council Member Hans Riemer, chair of the PHED committee, said Tuesday that the county was “leading the way” by passing the legislation, which has few national counterparts. Council employees found similar laws only in Santa Cruz, Calif. — which “heavily” shaped the county’s bill, according to a staff report — and the state of Washington.

The new legislation was applauded by advocacy groups and activists, including Dylan Shelton, a Silver Spring resident who pushes for more progressive rental policies on Twitter under the username “Problem Tenant.” The bill sets a strong example for neighboring areas, which could be inspired to pass similar laws, he said in a phone interview after the meeting.

“It’s a good precedent,” he said. “I don’t think there’s a lot of jurisdictions that have something like this, and it really flips the responsibility back to landlords.”

The sponsors said the legislation strikes a balance by protecting landlords who aren’t responsible for property violations, if a condemnation is “beyond the control of the landlord.”

Those include “acts of God” like major weather catastrophes, but also damage caused by the tenant, Jawando said Tuesday. Both he and Riemer emphasized that the bill was intended as an incentive for landlords to maintain their properties — not as a punishment.

“We want the number [of condemnations] to go down,” Jawando said. “That’s what this bill is intended for. Property owners who don’t maintain their buildings — they should bear the responsibility of their actions.”

To avoid the bill being interpreted as a punishment for landlords, both Riemer and Council Member Andrew Friedson — another member of the PHED committee — suggested decreasing the repayment requirement from three months to two months.

That amendment was included in a final version of the bill approved by committee members. Shelton said it was a major concern as he tracked the progress of the legislation, especially given the high cost of renting in Montgomery County.

“I know what it’s like to be on the housing market with a limited income and need to find a place fast,” he said.

In Shelton’s case, he was able to house-sit for friends until he found another apartment in his price range. But for tenants without the same resources, two months of rent would likely go quickly as they searched for another home, he said.

Jawando made a similar argument during the meeting, when he introduced a last-minute amendment to restore the repayment requirement to three months of rent. He cited the county’s high lease costs — which range from $1,200 to $3,200, depending on the ZIP code, he said — and the additional expenses of renting a home.

“If a tenant has to provide a security deposit, it could potentially cost more than $5,000 for them to move into a new unit,” Jawando said. “When we talk about why three months is necessary — that’s why we have to provide that kind of flexibility.”

Friedson voted against the amendment, as did Council Member Craig Rice, but both joined the rest of the council in approving the final version of the bill. The vote comes amid a broader push for tenants’ rights by Montgomery County legislators.

The council is expected to vote next week on a bill that would require landlords to supply air conditioning in the summer. Montgomery County state Del. Jheanelle Wilkins has announced plans to reintroduce a statewide bill that would require landlords to give a just cause for evicting a tenant.

Shelton said the legislation was especially important as Montgomery County considered its land-use policies — part of a regional and nationwide push to reexamine single-family zoning in light of affordable housing shortages.

“I think it’s really good to have this kind of tenant advocacy brought up at the same time we’re looking at policies that could lead to more apartments,” he said Tuesday. “It just makes sense to discuss it all at the same time.”

Source: bethesdamagazine.com

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