Last year, the average monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment in the county was $1,714, according to the county’s planning department research and special projects division. (Courtesy Photo)

ROCKVILLE – Two years of countywide apartment inspections uncovered poor and unsafe conditions, and housing officials said Aug. 8 that inspectors confirmed that 96% of the violations had been fixed.

County Executive Marc Elrich sponsored the tenant rights legislation, known as Bill 19-15, when he served on the County Council.

The council then had all apartments of all county apartment buildings inspected as part of the legislation, which the council passed in November of 2016. The purpose of the two-year surge of inspections was to provide baseline data on the county’s rental housing, according to a news release from November 30, 2016.

The Department of Housing and Community Affairs (DHCA) inspected every apartment of 686 apartment buildings during a two-year period, which included more than 22,000 apartments. The inspectors identified more than 31,000 violations. It was the first time the department had inspected 100% of apartments within a two-year period.

Elrich said since the start of the program, 96% of the housing violations have been corrected.

Elrich is not new to advocating for proper housing environments.

“I have long worked on tenant issues and called for these more-frequent and thorough inspections in my tenant rights legislation bill 19-15, which the county council unanimously supported,” Elrich said.

The tenant rights legislation did not pass when the councilmember-turned-county-executive first introduced it. Elrich said that council’s approval of the bill seemed to result from reaction to the gas explosion and fire that killed eight people at Flower Branch Apartments in Silver Spring on Aug. 10, 2016.

“That’s important that we did what we did,” Elrich said. “I wish the impetus had been natural rather than somewhat reactionary, but I’m glad it got done. Because that’s what the tenants in this county need – (a) good policy that helps protect the conditions in which they live.”

Councilmember Tom Hucker said he and Council President Nancy Navarro supported the bill when Elrich introduced it. He noted the bill’s history.

“As the county exec. said, this bill really languished for a whole year and it had to be renewed,” Hucker said. “It’s really, unfortunate, after the Flower Branch (apartment) explosion that there was a new spotlight put on rental housing conditions.”

Though the legislation could not prevent the explosion, it was not useless, Hucker said. Inspectors would discover housing code violations permeated housing in the county.

“There was a spotlight on longstanding problems in Montgomery County rental housing that necessitated a majority of the council feeling like they had to step up and do something,” Hucker continued.

If an inspector found a violation, the inspector scheduled a follow-up inspection, before which the landlord had to fix the problem. Under the legislation, if the landlord has not corrected the problem before the follow-up, he or she would receive a citation, accompanied by a fine and followed by another follow-up inspection, according to an Aug. 8 county news release. DHCA issued 309 citations during the two years of the inspection program.

Hucker said the findings of the inspections were eye-opening for the council.

“We had heard rationalizations for years that mold and vermin, broken smoke detectors and housing and fire code violations were really rare in Montgomery County,” Hucker said.

Some people claimed that reports of code violations were “fabrications” or that the tenants caused the violations.

“I think today’s data shows that those skeptics were wrong, and there have been widespread health problems and safety problems in Montgomery County housing for quite a long time,” Hucker said.

The DHCA uses the number and severity of the violations to assign each building one of three classifications – compliant, at-risk or troubled.

DHCA will use those classifications to determine the frequency and quantity of inspections, inspectors will conduct in the future. Of the 686 apartment buildings it oversees, the county classified 130 buildings as “troubled,” 112 buildings as “at-risk” and 444 buildings as compliant. County inspectors will inspect apartments of troubled buildings more often than those of compliant or at-risk buildings.

Rockville resident Mary Caroline Colletti, a city commissioner for the city’s Landlord-Tenant Commission, said she attended the press conference because she wanted to be informed of the outcome of the inspections.

“I had problems with mold,” Colletti said. Her landlord had the mold removed from Colletti’s apartment in September 2018, but she claimed that did not happen right away. She said she was unsure if all the mold was removed because she was unable to pay someone to move her furniture or move it herself.

“They ended up doing just a patch of a carpet” Colletti said, about the mold removal. The landlord replaced the section of carpet that had been removed.

Inspectors found mold in 118 apartments during the past two years, according to a county news release.

Acting Director of Housing and Community Affairs Tim Goetzinger said that the county had hired an additional nine inspectors in 2017, helping it complete more inspections in the same amount of time. In addition to the inspectors, the county also hired a supervisor and information technology, licensing and registration and support staff, for 14 full-time equivalents, including the nine inspectors.

“I think the initial cost when you factor in the inspectors and the cars, other types of operating expenses, it was a little under $2 million or so,” Goetzinger said about the added employees and resources under Bill 19-15. “And that was paid for by utilizing licensing fees,”

Property owners pay a licensing fee for each unit that the DHCA inspects; the fee pays for administration costs such as landlord-tenant mediation and code enforcement, Goetzinger said.

Code Enforcement Manager Dan McHugh said inspectors saved time in their inspections with the help of a new code inspection app, which took the place of recording violations with paper and pencil. County information technology employees created the app.

Under the passed legislation, landlords or managers would join the inspectors when they completed the inspections, whereas formerly they would just knock on apartment doors. The inspectors, then, did not have to rely on somebody being home so they could inspect an apartment.

Troubled properties will have every apartment inspected annually, for as long as the building has a troubled rating. A rating of “troubled” must last at least one year, according to the news release. Property owners also must create a corrective action plan to fix the violations inspectors found.

“These surge inspections are a good start, and we will continue inspecting ‘troubled properties’ annually and intensively until each becomes compliant,” Elrich said. “This gives apartment building owners an incentive to maintain their building within code.

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