Regulation of condominium conversions has no shortage of supporters on the Montgomery County Council. Nonetheless, last week when the council convened hearings on three condo bills before it, members of the senior citizens' group Betterment for United Seniors decided not to take any chances.
Armed with posters and printed hand-outs, about 75 elderly citizens showed up in the council hearing room in Rockville to demonstrate again that they want measures protecting old people -- many of whom are renters living on fixed incomes -- from having their homes sold out from under them.
Elizabeth Russ, 65, who described herself as a part-time secretary living alone in a $311-per-month apartment in Silver Spring, told the council: "In my building, if the landlord cares [about] the elderly, we don't know it."
"If he cares about the building or what happens to it, we don't know that either," she testified. " . . . Please pass the proposed protections for seniors of moderate means, with out any weakening amendments."
Beneath posters reading "Don't Try to Con-Do Us" and "Don't Squeeze Us Out," the audience applauded council member Rose Crenca when she observed that some members of the county's delegation in Annapolis had not given proper support to the tenant-protection measures.
Council President Ruth Spector banged the gavel for order, and pounded again when one spectator heckled state Sen. Laurence Levitan (D-Montgomery), an attorney whose firm has represented developers.
The overall mood was friendly, however. When the seniors presented each council member with a hobo's stick-and-hanbkerchief traveling kit, representing a tenant's risk of being put on the street by a condo conversion, smiles broke out on council faces.
It was evidence that both the elderly and the legislators agree that regulations is essential in condo conversions, which multiplied during the late 1970s as the rental business became less profitable. According to the council, about 5,000 of the country's 55,000 rental units have been converted in the past 18 months or are in the process of being changed over.
In 1979 the county imposed a moratorium on conversions. Later it passed legislation requiring that tenant groups be given the first right to buy a building slated for conversion -- the so-called "right of first refusal." bThe legislation also required developers to pay compensation to tenants who were displaced.
Last fall, however, an appeals court struck down those county controls and the battle's focus shifted to Annapolis.
Spokesmen for the housing industry have argued that regulation inhibits the market and, in the end, results in fewer newunits being built. In Annapolis, industry lobbyists sought to limit regulation to the state level and keep local jurisdictions out of the issue. Montgomery, meanwhile, fought for broadly worded legislation that would let local governments pass their own laws to meet their own needs.
Out of this struggle came a compromise empowering local governments to pass laws giving themselves or designated agencies the right of first refusal. But it contained several reverslas for Montgomery: Tenant groups are not granted first refusal rights, and moratoria such as the one the county had imposed are specifically banned.
Meanwhile, the council, smarting over the court's rejection of their bill last fall, had passed an amended version with language that it hoped the courts would find acceptable. That law, quickly challenged in court like its predecessor, restored the tenants' refusal rights. It remains in force, but apparently would be superceded by the three bills now before the council intended to implement the state's condo program. A vote is expected late this month.
The first would declare a "housing emergency" in the county. It would give right of first refusal to the county government or to the county's Housing Opportunities Commission (HOC), which would be required to keep any building so purchased on the rental market for at least three years. The HOC also would be empowered to purchase individual dwellings in a building being converted.
If the county did not buy the building, the bill would require the developer to extend the tenancies on as many as 20 percent of the units. Senior citizens and the handicapped would be eligible for lifetime tenancies.
Tenant families meeting income standards to be set by the executive also would be eligible for three-year extensions. Current thinking is to place the eligibility cut-off point at 80 percent of Montgomery's median family income which, according to Bett Lewis of the Department of Housing and Community Development, currently stands at $29,278.
The second bill would provide for financial assistance to elderly or handicapped tenants, either to help them pay higher rent when they move or to help them buy homes. Income-eligible families as defined above also would be eligible for financial help with rental payments. The maximum payment would be $3,000, or, ir a proposed amendment is adopted, $5,000.
The third measure would prohibit, in many cases, the eviction of elderly or handicapped tenants from a rental facility that was changing status, and would set guidelines for rents that could be charged such tenants.
Apparently realizing that control is inevitable, lobbyists testifying for real estate groups did not deliver major criticism of the proposals at last week's hearings. Instead, they made technical objections and fielded questions.
Extended discussion resulted from two amendments council member Crenca offered converning first-refusal rights for tenant associations, as Montgomery's original legislation had done, and helping them with financing problems in purchasing their buildings.
Blair Lee IV, Montgomery County's lobbyist in Annapolis, urged the council to reject the tenants' first-refusal-rights amendment, saying it went against the decision in Annapolis and could reverse gains won there. "There really is no support at the state level for that right," Lee said. ". . . Your're inviting the General Assembly to repeal the entire act."
Crenca, however, strongly criticized the county's legislation in its current form. She asked several witnesses how many buildings the county could realistically hope to purchase, given current prices. "This bill isn't worth the paper it's written on," she said.
Toward the end of the hearings, Elizabeth Russ and her group drifted out of the hall and regrouped near the County Office Building's front door to wait for a school bus to take them back to Silver Spring.
"Condominiums has been a bad word for about two years now," Russ commented later. Four buildings on her block have gone condo, she said, and she has no idea what she would do if hers should be converted.
"Somehow or other the people who rent, either by necessity or preference, always seem to get the short end of the stick," she said.