For 25 years, Diana Lyles has lived in the same apartment complex in Howard County. Facing two rent increases in the last five years and an attempted third last year of $985, she figures another one is probably coming when it’s time to renew her lease in July.

A retired state employee on disability income, she said she can’t afford higher rent and also worries there’s nowhere else for her to go.

She had hoped a rent stabilization bill considered by the Howard County Council and co-sponsored by County Executive Calvin Ball at the end of last year would help her situation, but the council voted not to take it up.

“I already see it coming, I’m already packing, I’m already doing what I need to do to prepare,” Lyles said. “This bill needs to be in place. We have a lot of tenants out here who are suffering the same fate.”

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The bill failed when it was considered by the County Council in January, even as similar legislation in other counties have had success, in part because of beliefs that it ignored the concerns of landlords. Also not helping matters was that the bill’s co-sponsor on the council was absent.

Ball has said he wanted this bill to pass, and is working to advance certain elements without legislation, such as investments into rental assistance programs. He did not commit to refiling his bill

, but said if the council can reach a consensus “and pass thoughtful legislation to prevent rent gouging or other aspects and help create a better quality of life, I’m definitely willing to evaluate it.”

Ball’s bill would have capped rent increases at 10%, which he said was needed because rent in the county has increased 23% over the last three years and has become too costly for some residents.

“I wanted legislation that would have prohibited those large, gouging increases because our renters need predictability and stability, and also making sure that bad actors couldn’t price gouge renters with increases of like 20, 30, 40% in a given year,” Ball said.

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County Council Vice Chair Liz Walsh said the vote that failed to move the bill off the table, effectively killing it, came as a complete shock.

“The council heard a public hearing from all these people of all kinds of ranges of where they are in life and where they live, all saying they need help, basically saying, ‘We wish this was stronger, but at least do this minimum effort,’ and it just kind of evaporated with no warning. At least to people like me,” Walsh said.

Council Chair Deb Jung, along with Walsh, wanted the bill to progress and voted for it. At the request of Ball, the bill was introduced and co-sponsored by council member Christiana Rigby, who was not at the vote. Rigby was not available for comment in time for publication.

Council members Opel Jones and David Yungmann voted for the bill not to progress.

Yungmann said he opposed the bill because it did not address landlords needing to play catch-up after pauses rent increases during the height of the pandemic. He said that while the bill protected tenants, it also restricted how landlords operate.

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He said rent increases have been large, but they weren’t widespread, and only a handful of tenants experienced huge jumps in rent.

Jung said the legislation was needed because it appeared that the number of people getting gouged for rent had increased and that they needed relief.

When asked about reintroducing a rent stability bill, Jung said she was looking into it, but was not sure that it had the necessary support.

“Maybe bringing back a bill that would address, at the very least, all of the fees that people have to pay as renters,” she said. “We certainly could reintroduce that piece to make fees optional.”

Tenants alongside the Howard County Rent Stabilization Coalition have been mobilizing since May of last year for rent caps and other measures to make rent more affordable, the coalition’s co-founder Jake Burdett said.

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He would have welcomed the Ball-sponsored bill as a start to the addressing the problem, but said it could have been much stronger, and he will keep fighting to get a bill that is in line with six other features the committee previously requested, including a rent increase cap of 3% that would apply to renters of any lease type and limits on added administrative fees to tenants.

“It was nowhere near where we wanted it to be. [The bill] was a Band-Aid to a larger housing crisis,” Burdett said.

Ball’s bill allowed rent increases up to 10% in a given year, or the Consumer Price Index at the time plus 5%, whichever was lower. Burdett said if it had passed, it could have left tenants with rents increasing upward of 20% over the span of a few years. While the bill included some of the coalition’s parameters, Burdett said Ball’s bill was a watered-down version of what they asked for.

The bill also had an exemption for buildings built in the last 20 years and for new builds for 20 years, which would apply to 18,000 units or 67% of the existing rentals in the county, according to the county auditor’s analysis of the bill.

Burdett emphasized that this exemption left out one-third of the county’s renters.

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Because Howard County is one of the wealthiest counties in the country, people might not look at it as a place with rentals, low-income people or housing issues, which is simply not the case, Burdett said.

“At least 30% of our residents are renters, and so rent stabilization is just as big of an issue here as in other jurisdictions, if not even more necessary because of how desirable of a place that Howard County and Columbia is as a place to live,” Burdett said. “So that’s going to increase the demand for increasing rents and so that’s why something like rent stabilization is needed to make sure that Columbia can continue to be affordable for everybody across the income spectrum.”

He said he felt like Ball’s bill was worthwhile and winnable, especially after nearby counties passed rent control bills.

County councils in Prince George’s County and Montgomery County recently passed rent stabilization bills into law. Montgomery County capped rent increases at just 3% plus inflation, or 6%, whichever is lower, which is what the coalition was asking for.

Walsh echoed Burdett’s thoughts on the bill. She said she thought Ball’s bill was good to put forward to protect tenants from the very worst landlords and thought it would pass.

“Rentals are a huge, meaningful percentage of the people who live in this county, and apartments — that tends to be affordable housing versus owning your own single-family detached home in some cul-de-sac,” Walsh said. “So it really it was a disappointment, but we weren’t ever driving the bus and it came as a surprise when the bus crashed into a pile of crap.”

After the bill failed, Ball said he is still working on providing rental assistance in the county and pointed to a newly launched program to help homeless students and their families. The county provided $1 million to start the Family Home Start Program, which will help families access stable housing.

He said the county also put $1 million into a pilot program that will create a rental subsidy program for students of Howard Community College.

But while Howard County remains without rent control, Lyles said she’s already starting to pack her things and look for places to go once her lease is up for renewal. She lives with her 17-year-old son and said she’s making sure he can enjoy his last few years in high school without worrying about where they will go.

She said she just knows a rent increase is bound to happen again this year.

“This bill is detrimental to me,” Lyles said. “I will be homeless come July.”

This story has been updated to clarify the rent increase cap on Montgomery County’s bill.

Abby Zimmardi is a reporter covering Howard County for The Baltimore Banner. Zimmardi earned her master’s degree from the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism in December 2022.

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