Elaine Nichols has demanded a resolution to the dangerous conditions she’s experienced at her Reservoir Hill apartment complex from anyone who will listen — but still, she says, nothing has been done.
In November, her apartment in the Temple Gardens apartment building caught fire from a stove that she’d repeatedly asked her landlord, Roizman & Associates, to replace, she said. She also deals constantly with bugs and rodents. “My apartment is infested with mice running like ants through my apartment,” Nichols said, speaking Monday afternoon to a group of tenant advocates and officials gathered just down the street and outside the Emersonian Apartments, owned by the same landlord.
“The doctor told me and my granddaughter both not to go back in that apartment and stay, and we’re still in there right now,” said Nichols. “It’s a disgrace.”
A bill introduced Monday evening by Baltimore City Councilman Zeke Cohen would subject this building and others like it to heightened scrutiny by the city’s Department of Housing and Community Development and require greater transparency about building conditions and licensure. Roizman & Associates, which is based in Pennsylvania, did not respond immediately to a request for comment.
The bill would require city officials to inspect “priority buildings” with 20 units or more that have a documented history of poor conditions twice per year until conditions improve. If conditions do not get better, a building could lose its rental license. “Priority buildings” can include those with unaddressed notices or citations regarding issues such as lead paint, leaks, pests, a high volume of 311 requests, and those that have received a low inspection score from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. If more than 30 buildings meet the priority dwelling criteria in a year, the city housing department would choose at least 30 to inspect at its discretion.
The bill would also establish a rental licensing and inspection task force to provide oversight of rental inspections, require landlords to distribute inspection reports to tenants, and provide an active rental license to current and prospective tenants.
“Let me be clear, this is not an anti-landlord bill, this is an anti-slumlord bill,” said Cohen. “For the handful of slum landlords that poison our neighbors with lead and mold, that refuse to fix broken elevators or invest in maintenance, 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.”
The Maryland Multi-Housing Association, which represents landlords across the state, declined to comment on the proposed legislation.
Currently, the city’s housing department performs inspections only in response to requests from tenants. Third-party inspectors hired by the landlord are responsible for conducting inspections as a prerequisite for rental licenses. “It is clear to me that this system is not holding the worst actors accountable,” Cohen said in response to questions from The Baltimore Banner.
In August, tenants gathered outside Nichols’ building to protest conditions there: roaches, mice and broken elevators, which were leaving elderly tenants stranded in their apartments. In October, seniors and disabled residents of Wyman House, just south of Johns Hopkins University’s Homewood campus, gathered outside the towering brick complex to protest unsafe conditions at that complex.
“In the buildings I work in, I’ve seen tenants get sick and even die because they were unaware of the conditions they were moving into and they were unable to do anything about them,” said Indigo Null, an organizer with Baltimore Renters United. “I want to repeat that: I have seen tenants die because of these conditions.”
In response to the bill announcement, Tammy Hawley, a spokeswoman for the housing department, said: “We look forward to exploring the proposal and resources needed with its sponsor. DHCD works daily to ensure safe living conditions for all residents through code enforcement activities.”
Housing advocates say that while they support the bill, it would only be as successful as its enforcement by the city’s housing agency. And, they say the agency’s enforcement record leaves them skeptical.
Many tenant complaints about acute safety issues — faulty elevators or structural issues — have generated either no inspection from the city housing department or a complaint that is closed before tenants feel the issue has been adequately addressed, according to Null.
“If DHCD doesn’t have the capacity to do their job like they need to be doing it, we have to recognize that that is something that’s not changing quickly enough to protect tenants,” said Null.
Null worried that buildings deserving of extra scrutiny may not make the cut as priority buildings under the bill, because that characterization could depend on a record of unresolved citations or notices.
The city’s top housing code enforcement official spoke bluntly about the department’s capacity challenges at a council hearing in late January. “I am not at what I consider ‘mission capable’ strength,” said Eric Booker, the deputy commissioner for housing code enforcement and emergency operations.
Booker noted that the department currently has 50 inspectors, far short of the 80 inspectors he said the department needs. Booker blamed the shortage on the challenges of retaining inspectors.
“When my strength takes a hit because inspectors leave because of safety in Baltimore City — they decide they want to go to D.C. or wherever — I have to make operational decisions to remove some of that operation burden,” Booker told the council.
Inadequate staffing means that inspectors are assigned to large geographical areas and that some issues may not be addressed in a timely manner, he said.
“There are some things that we just have to wait and hope we don’t take a hit on,” Booker said.
Cohen noted that the bill includes a fee on buildings where inspections would be mandated to cover the costs.
“But I understand that the problem is broader than that,” he wrote, acknowledging the bill is “just as much about providing clarity on the problems with our current system as it is about solving them.”
He committed to advocate for more funding for the city housing department to perform inspections in the coming budget. But he also pointedly called on the agency to do more to push for this funding itself. “It is no longer an acceptable excuse to keep saying, ‘We don’t have enough capacity,’” Cohen said.
In response, Hawley told The Banner: “We, like all city agencies, work with BBMR every year during the budget cycle to identify opportunities for increased funding.”
Advocates also expressed concern that using 311 call volume as a metric to determine priority buildings would leave some problem buildings off the list.
“There are plenty of buildings that are death traps and they don’t have high 311 calls,” said Albert Turner, an attorney who represents tenants at the Public Justice Center. Turner said many tenants don’t trust that calling 311 will result in any change.
Advocates also worry that the bill’s requirement that landlords provide proof the building has been licensed won’t be effective without greater enforcement.
“Whenever you’re talking about a rental license bill, there needs to be some back-end enforcement either in court or from DHCD to make sure these are actually being seen through,” Turner said.
Last summer, an out-of-order elevator serving the apartments above the Polish National Alliance on Eastern Avenue left Larrice Harris, who uses a mobility scooter, mostly stranded in her fourth-floor apartment for a month and a half. The building isn’t licensed, according to city records.
“I felt like I was not a human, basically,” Harris said. “It was pitiful, and they didn’t care anything about us.”
Harris is glad that the bill will bring more attention to the conditions that she and her neighbors face, but she said it’s insufficient without also providing alternative housing options.
She said she managed to find other housing, but most of her former neighbors are still in the building. “They say to me all the time, ‘I have nowhere else to go,’” she said.