Once Again, Washington landlord Shao Ti Hsu's name is linked to plans to make profits from substandard housing. This week it was alleged that Mr. Hsu and former senator Vance Hartke offered a Prince George's housing official money to stop the county from citing housing-code violations on properties the two were considering for purchse. In 1976 District officials named Mr. Hsu as the city's No. 1 violator of the housing code. Earlier this year, Prince George's officials temporarily took away his license to rent apartments at one location after finding he had neglected the property and allowed unsanitary conditions to stand.
In fact, the whole question of multiple code violations arises because the area's supply of housing for poor people is shrinking and landlords can rent just about anything, no matter what the condition. Further, rent control may tend to diminish the inclination of landlords to make necessary repairs, and the inclination of housing officials to enforce the code too stringently in borderline cases. This creates the opportunity for even those landlords with a record of code violations to continue operating. In many instances, housing officials say, a smart, experienced landlord who puts his mind to it can avoid correcting violations for months.
One problem is that it is not always clear who is responsible for such code violations as bad plumbing, exposed wires or rat infestation. It is not simply that tenants may sometimes be responsible for violations. A "landlord" need not technically be the owner of record. Title to the property can be sold to investors at an attractively low price, while the "landlord" retains the mortgage and collects the monthly rents. With that lien on the property, the building cannot be sold without the "landlord's" consent and thus his interest in the property is protected. In that way, the "landlord" can profit without making repairs or being held liable for code violations. The investors may abandon or try to sell the property when they find that they can't make a profit on it because of needed repairs. But if investors foreclose, the "landlord" keeps their down payment and seeks to attract new investors. All the while, violations go unattended and the "landlord" remains beyond legal reproach.
One way to stop a landlord with a record of housing-code violations from continuing to buy properties and irresponsibly profiting from them may be to make the current housing code less general and to apply it more consistently. Clarifying areas of violation that are now vague could prevent some land-lords from playing bump-and-run with housing officials. A second idea may be to give properties negative "points," like traffic-violation points, for housing-code violations. When the property's points exceeded a certain number, housing officials could compel the attendance of the property owner, and his mortgage holder, at a hearing. If the property remained in violation, both the owner and mortgage holder could be taken to court for property neglect and for endangering their tenant's health or even lives. Purposefully allowing people to live in substandard housing to make a profit is an offense against society and can-not be condoned.