Montgomery County Executive Leggett proposes 11-point renters plan

Short of rent control, proposal seeks more transparency

by Kate S. Alexander,  Staff Writer | Wednesday, July 18, 2012

As the Montgomery County Council discusses renter rights, County Executive Isiah Leggett has offered an 11-point plan to strengthen the county’s voluntary rental guidelines.

Leggett (D) opposes rent control because it could stifle economic development and limit affordable housing stock.

Still, he said he believes changes are necessary to better serve renters.

Leggett’s plan comes as the county’s Planning Housing and Economic Development committee continues discussions of rental issues, during which Councilman Marc B. Elrich floated the idea of rent stabilization.

“I feel it is not wise to pursue that effort,” Leggett said of rent stabilization, adding “but I do believe there are things we can do.”

Leggett’s proposal would not prevent large rent increases, but rather make increases more transparent. It would give tenants more warning, justification for increases and time to find alternative housing, he said.

Mandatory reporting of rent increases, unit by unit, would be required under Leggett’s plan, as would enforcement of existing fines of up to $1,000 for landlords who do not submit a required rental survey. Data collected by the survey would be published on the Department of Housing and Community Affairs (DHCA) website.

DHCA would provide the number of landlord-tenant complaints received by the county’s Commission on Landlord-Tenant Affairs — a 15-member commission appointed to settle disputes between landlords and tenants and hear apartment license revocations appeals — and annually provide information on the resolution of those disputes.

For tenants, when landlords increase rents higher than the guidelines, Leggett would increase the required notice landlords must provide tenants from 60 days to 90 days, while at the same time reducing the notice tenants must give to landlords for terminating their lease because of a pending rent increase from 60 days to 30 days.

Leggett said his proposal should help mitigate the impact of rent increases above the voluntary rental guidelines.

“It’s consistent with his view and inconsistent with a policy that tries to preserve affordable housing in the county,” Elrich said. “It’s the usual stuff we hear so they will be perfectly free to do whatever they want to do, and those units will be lost and there is no credible way to replace them.”

About two years ago, Elrich unsuccessfully pursued rent control.

In April, he floated an idea for “rent stabilization” that deviated from traditional rent control.

Elrich (D-At large) of Takoma Park said he would like to set a limit, similar to the county’s existing voluntary rental guidelines, up to which landlords can increase rents without explanation. A higher increase would need to be justified, while large increases would need to be vetted by an independent rental analyst.

New units could be exempt from any rent stabilization legislation for a period of about seven years so landlords could figure out their operating costs.

Matt Losak, executive director of the Montgomery County Renters Alliance, said that Leggett and Elrich both acknowledging that there is a problem in the county with rising rents and rental affordability is a welcome first step.

But a $1,000 fine, even if enforced, is small enough that it could be seen by corporate landlords as the cost of doing business, he said.

“We are pleased, with the exception that it needs teeth,” Losak said. “In my view it does not go far enough. It needs to be more compelling than mere publicity.”

Even with efforts to enhance reporting by DHCA, transparency still would be an issue, as would accuracy of the data, Losak said.

Aspects of Leggett’s proposal are good, Elrich said, adding that the executive is not unsupportive of efforts to monitor landlords and require better reporting.

“But at the end of the day if you can do all of that stuff and there is no break on exorbitant increases, we are going to have trouble,” Elrich said. “You are not going to effectively deal with the problem you say you want to deal with unless you are willing to [stabilize rents]. Everything else is just window dressing.”


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