College Park braces for rent control renewal battle

Kathy Bryant said last week that she would have liked to sit on her back porch and enjoy the sunshine, but as often happens in her Old Town College Park neighborhood, the University of Maryland students who live in one of the neighboring houses were throwing a loud party.

“We just want a nice, quiet neighborhood,” said Bryant, president of the Old Town College Park Civic Association.

College Park officials — seeking, in part, to cut down on the number of student rental properties in the city — passed a rent-control ordinance to cap rents for rental homes in 2005, which is set to expire in September. The ordinance remained unenforced until it was upheld in court in 2010, after a challenge from individual property owners.

The looming deadline is renewing the debate between the city and landlords about how to make College Park a more livable place for both students and residents like Bryant.

The rent stabilization law was “passed for two reasons,” Mayor Andrew Fellows said, “to keep students from being ripped off, and second, to protect our community, to protect housing for families who want to live and raise their children in College Park,” because investors looking to profit off the student population would be less inclined to buy homes. “These objectives argue for having a local regulatory measure.”

Over the next two months, council members plan to debate the law, with a new ordinance expected to be introduced at a June 12 council meeting with a possible vote on July 10, city officials said.

The Prince George’s Property Owners Association, a coalition of landlords in the College Park area, have been the most vocal opponents of the ordinance, because it caps the amount of money they can charge to rent their homes.

“From any perspective, this is a bad policy,” association president Lisa Miller said.

For landlords, she said, rent caps cut into their ability to recoup their investment into the property. Homeowners might not have the option of renting their properties for amounts that would cover mortgage payments, she said, and that would make houses less attractive to potential buyers. With all single-family homes in the city under this ordinance, property values could drop, which is bad for homeowners and the city, which raises revenue from property taxes.

Although she has not yet reduced her costs because of the law, Miller said, she foresees herself and other landlords cutting back on home maintenance.

“The landscaping services will be gone,” Miller said. “I’ll paint less often, maybe every four years instead of every two.”

Paul Carlson, another landlord and PGPOA member, said the ordinance will disproportionately affect the “good” landlords.

“It’s a massive disincentive for improving the property,” Carlson said.

The city’s rent control ordinance — which caps rates for single-family homes and duplexes at the fair market value of $2,522 per month — grew out of a concern that landlords were dramatically increasing rent to take advantage of high demand for off-campus housing, said Council member Robert Catlin (Dist. 2), who authored the original ordinance. Catlin said it’s hard to gauge the policy’s success, because rents for group homes often go unadvertised, and only 665 of 943 properties are compliant. The city’s Department of Public Services is tasked with ensuring compliance.

Baltimore-based analyst company Sage Policy Group submitted a report to the city in March, arguing there is a legal basis for the rent-control law, because the percentage of owner-occupied housing in the city is decreasing. The report also said that rental properties receive four times the number of code violations from the city than do owner-occupied homes.

According to the report, College Park’s housing scene has changed dramatically since 2005, because 736 units, with more than 2,400 beds, have been built since 2009 in high-rise off-campus student housing. There also are proposals for new housing and a potential 1,254 additional units.

“When you have large numbers of group homes on one block, there get to be quality-of-life issues” such as too many cars or trash or noise, Fellows said. “The density exceeds what was intended.”

Many of these homes are in District 1, the historic neighborhoods close to the University of Maryland campus represented by council member Robert Day, the former chairman of the Rent Stabilization Board, which advises the city on the ordinance. Day said the solutions to the problems of high rent and code violations are more likely to be found in a conversation than in a city ordinance.

“It’s been bad blood for a long time” between the city and landlords, Day said, “and both sides are afraid to reach out. Can we work better together? Yeah.”

Miller said the PGPOA is prepared to fight again, if the law stays in effect.

“It’s in [the council’s] power to make a shift and work collaboratively,” he said. “Or we can go down the same road that leads to the same legal fights.”

 
Read what others are saying