The Montgomery County Council this week appointed Elise W. Hall as director of the county Office of Landlord-Tenant Affairs. Hall has been acting director for the past three months.
She is charged with overseeing disputes between landlords and tenants, which includes supervision of the new county law setting voluntary rent control guidelines.
Barely half a year after rent controls were abolished in the county, tenants complain bitterly about high rents, landlords complain bitterly about high costs, and Hall has the job of arbitrating disputes between the two groups.
When the council appointed Hall to her new post, council member Esther Gelman suggested that the new director stock up on ulcer pills.
"Oh, what a three months,"said Hall about her term as acting director. The nature of the job came as no surprise since Hall also has worked as an investigator and program director in the Landlord-Tenant office.
"I am not often the purveyor of good news," said Hall. "I don't believe in being anything but straightforward with people."
The problems in landlord-tenant affairs are quite simple, according to Hall. "The tenant focus is very different from that of the landlord focus," she explained. "The tenant is very concerned about his ability to remain in the county. He feels the landlord may be willy-nilly escalating rents. One of the big jobs of this office is to show both groups what's going on - to show tenants why their rents are going up and what costs landlords are incurring."
Much of Hall's job, because of the new law on voluntary rent guidelines, consists of explaining things to people.
"You get caught daily," said Hall, "between tenants and landlords who want different things. A tenant wants a lower rent. But we do not have the power to roll back rents. And he (the tenant) doesn't believe the landlord has reasons to raise it.
"You can look at the landlord's records and sit down with the tenant and explain to him, 'Look the landlord has to raise his rent. His fuel charges have gone up 45 percent.'"
But there also are problems with landlords. For instance, some landlords don't want to turn over their records to an investigator at the Landlord-Tenant office.
"Landlords would just as soon have regulatory agcencies go away," Hall said. "But most of the landlords have made efforts to comply (with voluntary rent guidelines)."
The end of mandatory rent controls in the county also has brought a plethora of maintenance complaints from tenants, Hall said.
"The things people felt they could live with before rent control ended - the chipped linoleum, the dripping faucets - we now get complaints about. People are more maintenance conscious now."
In general, Hall sees the landlord-tenant office, established six years ago, as an effective, cheaper alternative to the courtroom where many landlord-tenant disputes have gone.
"An individual can file a complaint through this office and achieve relief without going to court," she said.
"Maybe the tenant made a mistake and forgot about an increase in the rent," Hall said. "Maybe the landlord made a mistake, maybe the tenant doesn't speak English. We can sit them down and help solve problems."
The agency will begin a more rigorous collection of data on apartment rents and vacancies, according to Hall. At the end of July the agency will release a report on the effects of rent decontrol. "I'm not prepared to say at this point what the picture is without rent control," said Hall.
The last director of the agency, Tom Hamilton, left to run for County Council as an independent. Hall said she has only begun to map, the direction the agency might take without him.
"Tom was a controversial person in a controversial job," said Hall. "He was more flamboyant than I am. Much of what I have today I learned from him, but my approach is different.