In a unanimous vote on June 25, the county council approved a bill that gives tenants the right to break a lease if living conditions in their dwelling hurt their health or safety.

The bill, sponsored by Councilmember Tom Hucker (D-5), is part of a county effort to give more power to tenants in an attempt to break the power of negligent or absent landlords. The bill gives landlords 30 days to fix housing code violations that negatively affect the health or safety of tenants; otherwise, the tenants have the legal right to break their lease.

Hucker said the idea for the bill came from complaints from tenants who live at the Enclave in Silver Spring, one of the biggest apartment buildings in Montgomery County. Inspectors from the Department of Housing and Community Affairs found 2,600 housing code violation when they inspected the Enclave, including pests like mice and roaches in apartments in the building.

“This bill just allows tenants in the future to break leases like this, terminate leases like this, if the landlord hasn’t addressed health and safety violations — which are defined in the codes,” Hucker said. “So, hopefully, it will never be used because hopefully every landlord from now on will actually fix the problems, and our tenants won’t have to put up with conditions like this.”

The bill is part of a new emphasis from county government on putting greater pressure on landlords who violate housing codes. In the past few years, both the council and the county executive have placed greater emphasis on code enforcement, given the poor conditions that many low-income residents live in, in Montgomery County.

Currently, under Montgomery County housing law, landlords have 30 days to fix a housing code violations, or face a fine. Now tenants will have the power to pressure landlords into fixing code violations, with the threat of being able to legally cancel a lease agreement.

To successfully appeal a tenant’s attempt to break a lease, a landlord must prove that he or she attempted to rectify the housing code violations within 30 days and that he or she gave the tenants proper notice before doing so.

Hucker’s bill drew wide support from housing non-profits, who said it is an important step in giving low-income renters an opportunity to rectify clear housing violations.

“In Montgomery County, where the cost of living is so high and affordable housing is scarce, lower-income residents often struggle to find acceptable housing options for their families,” said Lisette Engel, a member of the Montgomery County Community Action Board. “With limited options, many families may find themselves in living situations that are less than ideal.”

Marcus Meeks, a member of the board of directors for Habitat for Humanity Metro Maryland, said his organization has found apartments in Montgomery County infested with mice, roaches and bedbugs.

In addition, Meeks said members of his organization visited an apartment where a landlord refused to provide wheelchair access to a tenant or to fix a broken elevator in the building, something that Meeks hopes the bill will correct.

“While most landlords care about the conditions of their properties, some do not,” he said. “Those who do not care create unhealthy and unsafe living conditions for our fellow residents of Montgomery County.”

The bill sets certain criteria before tenants can break lease, which include: rodent or insect infestation that affects at least 20% of the units in a building, extensive and visible  mold inside the interior walls or on the surfaces inside a building, unsafe windows that cannot provide a safe exit, pervasive and recurring” water leaks that cause property damage, dampness or mold growth, or lack of functioning utilities.

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