Members of the Baltimore City Council voted to advance an ordinance Tuesday that would restore tenants’ right to negotiate privately with landlords for rental properties ahead of owners seeking other offers.

The Councilmember Mary Pat Clarke Opportunity to Purchase Act — formerly known as the tenant’s right of first refusal — honors the former city councilwoman and City Council president, who helped pass the ordinance at the start of her elected career. Sponsored by her successor, City Councilwoman Odette Ramos, the ordinance would repeal a clause added in later that allows landlords who list properties with real estate agents to be exempt from making a first offer to renters. Instead, tenants would have to bid along with other prospective buyers.

Ramos said the exemption — added during a period with Clarke out of elected office — has made the act obsolete and warrants renewal to provide more housing options for the city’s renters. Ramos said she took advantage of the act to buy her first home in 1997 on the 2500 block of Guilford Avenue, before the law was watered down.

“The idea is to bring it back to what Mary Pat [Clarke] intended,” Ramos said shortly before the Economic and Community Development Committee hearing.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

If enacted, a landlord with a single-family rental home who is interested in selling would have to first approach a tenant with an offer. The tenant would then have 14 days to deliver a “letter of interest” to the landlord.

If a tenant decides to go that route, the person would sign a regular Maryland contract with built-in deadlines and would then secure financing. If the tenant opts out or doesn’t respond to the written offer of sale, the landlord can proceed with another sale.

The ordinance, Ramos said, also adds reporting requirements for the city’s Department of Housing and Community Development to inform the City Council how many people are benefiting from the legislation as well as an enforcement clause and several technical amendments.

“It makes sense to look back at this law and see what could be done to make it easier for tenants,” Ramos said during the bill hearing. She emphasized that it would only apply to single-family homes — not multifamily homes — and that the Housing Authority of Baltimore City, which owns some scattered-site housing throughout the city, would be exempt due to their protocols with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

There are a number of other exemptions in the bill, including for landlords that want to transfer title to family members; for landlords that want to gift properties to religious or charitable foundations or government agencies; and for landlords who transfer titles by will or through inheritance.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

All members of the City Council committee, with one abstention and one absence, voted in favor of advancing the ordinance with amendments, meaning it will go before the full City Council for another vote.

The city’s housing department, the Department of Finance and the Department of Planning had no objections to the bill, though the housing agency did offer some amendments and commented during the hearing that they could use more staff to fulfill the bill’s reporting and data requirements.

The Baltimore City Office of Equity and Civil Rights, in assessing the ordinance, found that the bill will “likely improve” economic and housing outcomes for Black people and people of color, who endure the highest rates of rent burden in the city. It recommended adding an education program for renters as part of the ordinance’s requirements and safeguards for renters who use government assistance to help finance the purchase, both of which Ramos said would be added to updated versions of the bill.

If enacted, the ordinance would take effect in 180 days to give city agencies time to prepare.

Hallie Miller covers housing for The Baltimore Banner. She's previously covered city and regional services, business and health at both The Banner and The Baltimore Sun.

More From The Banner