You have rented the same two-bedroom town house in Prince George's County for nearly 15 years and one day receive a "notice to quit" from your landlord in the mail. Who can you call?
The walls and ceilings of your fourth-floor apartment are cracked and the metal rivets holding the balcony railing together have rusted through, making it too wobbly to leave your child on alone. Must the landlord pay for repairs or injuries?
The landlord never fixed the broken sink pipe or installed better locks on the doors as he promised three months ago. Would staging a rent strike be legal?
You are a landlord whose tenants are consistently late with their rent. Is eviction the only alternative?
The people who rented your Montgomery County house have decided to renovate -- without your permission. Is that a lease violation in your county?
Your tenant is suing you for retaliatory eviction. You don't even know what that means. Where can you turn for help?
With lower interest rates and tax laws bringing more investors into the rental housing market, Maryland's landlord-tenant laws are in increasing use in Prince George's and Montgomery counties. Because the laws are complex and confusing, many landlords and tenants are in the dark as to their rights.
The quickest recourse for Montgomery County tenants wanting to file a complaint against their landlords is through the county's landlord-tenant affairs office.
Richard Ferrara, the office's executive director, said he received "about 800 complaints this year, about 400 of which turned out to be formal, with 30 to 35 ending up in more formal commission hearings."
To file a grievance, Montgomery tenants can pick up complaint forms at their local landlord-tenant affairs office. One copy of the grievance should be mailed to the landlord. After seven days, if the landlord does not respond to the complaint, the landlord-tenant affairs office takes over.
An impartial investigator attempts to negotiate an amicable settlement and, if that proves impossible, turns the case over to the county's Committee on Landlord-Tenant Affairs. This three-member panel makes a final judgment on the grievance. If either party fails to comply with the committee's ruling, the issue moves toa Maryland District Court.
Prince George's County tenants follow much the same procedure when filing grievances through that county's landlord-tenant commission.
If there are repairs you think your landlord should make, take your gripe, in writing, to the landlord-tenant affairs office, said Linda Jenkins, an administrative assistant to the commission.
As in Montgomery County, an investigator attempts to resolve the problem through negotiation. If no agreement is possible, the complaint is reviewed again to determine whether to hold a formal hearing or dismiss the grievance. If the matter passes on to the executive director of the commission, he issues a written order following the hearing.
The commission's decisions may be appealed to District Court.
Landlords, meanwhile, can file grievances against their tenants for damage to property, nonpayment of rent or illegal possession of the premises. These cases are usually resolved in court.
One way Prince George's County landlords can win a court-ordered eviction of a tenant is by proving that the rental property was sublet without permission. That tactic is seldom used, however, according to Christie Stockton, a district court clerk.
When a tenant is behind in rent payments, the landlord is entitled to file a complaint in court the day after the rent is due.
Additionally, in Prince George's, if the landlord, for any reason, wants the tenant to move, he must give at least 30 days written notice. Tenants have no protection, except countersuing, against this action. In a countersuit, a tenant could, for example, try to prove that an eviction for nonpayment of rent stems from the landlord's refusal to make much-needed repairs.
If your landlord reneged on promises to fix the leaky faucet or install better security in your home and you decide a rent strike willsignal that you mean business, it is best to understand county and state law.
For example, "withholding of rent is illegal in Prince George's County," Jenkins said, if the tenant does not intend to collect monetary damages. Jenkins suggests that "angry tenants follow the commission's complaint procedure as an alternative to nonpayment of rent."
Maryland statelaw entitles tenants to withhold rent when filing in district court for monetary damages. The following are guidelines for taking that action:
* The landlord must receive a notice of the complaint by certified mail or official notice of condemnation or a code violation from the state, county or local government, according to Douglas M. Bregman, a Montgomery County attorney who specializes in real estate. Landlords have at least 30 days to correct a malfunction or make "serious repairs."
Bregman defines a "serious repair" as one involving "a danger to the individual or house, such as lack of heat or electricity, no hot or cold running water, rodents or structural defects dangerous to the physical safety of the tenant."
* Another option for the rent-striker is to let the court hold rent payments in a type of escrow account until the landlord makes the necessary changes to the property.
* Bregman also said proof that rent has been paid is one of most obvious ways of beating an eviction for nonpayment of rent.
Tenants may file a complaint in district court if their landlord gives insufficient notice that they must move. Landlords must give tenants at least 60 days to leave the premises in Montgomery County and 30 days in Prince George's.
Bregman pointed out that, under Maryland law, landlords can sue their tenants for a "breach of lease. This is when the landlord alleges . . . that the tenant has, in some substantial respect, violated the terms of the lease."
However, Bregman notes three ways tenants can successfully defend themselves against this charge. They can prove the violation was minor, justifiable or remedied immediately after being brought to their attention. A blind person with a seeing-eye dog in an apartment complex with a "no pets allowed" clause in the lease would be committing a "justifiable" breach of lease, according to Bregman.
Other legal terms associated with Maryland state housing statutes are "warrant of restitution" (written notification of eviction), "right of redemption," (tenants' right to pay rent anytime between actual eviction and 48 hour appeal period), "tenant holding over action," (landlords forcing tenants to leave apartment when terms of lease have expired), "foreclosure on the right of redemption," (if tenant is tardy with rent more than three times, he loses opportunity to pay rent altogether) and "complaint in forceable detainer" (ensures removal of unwanted occupants).
Tenants living in Gaithersburg, Rockville and Takoma Park are not included in the Montgomery County municipality and, therefore, must go to other local agencies when filing grievances.
Bregman emphasizes that tenants should remember that local landlord-tenant commissions cannot help renters win monetary compensation of any kind. "Money damages can only be awarded through the courts," he said.
Donald Weinroth, a Montgomery County tenant living in Bethesda, received a "notice to quit" in the mail and now is suing his new landlords for "retaliatory eviction" because, he says, "for the past 18 months I've been active in the tenant association."
Before Weinroth became involved in his apartment complex's tenant association, he knew of existing landlord-tenant laws "only in generalities."
According to county law, retaliatory eviction means the landlord cannot evict a tenant arbitrarily for belonging to advocacy groups, filing a complaint with the landlord-tenant office, pursuing court action or organizing a tenants' association.
Weinroth has at least three alternatives in following up on his charge.
The first is to file a retaliatory eviction complaint with the landlord-tenant affairs office in his county. Or, Weinroth could take his charge to the Montgomery County Human Relations office, wait two to three weeks and have his case discussed at a "fact-finding conference" with an investigator, himself and the landlord.
Also, Weinroth can file suit in the Montgomery County District Court in hope of avoiding eviction and being awarded compensation equal to his court costs.
If you are black and trying to rent in a predominately white neighborhood, and the real estate agent shows you nothing but houses in disrepair in an apparent attempt to discourage you from moving in, your best bet is to file an "antidiscrimination" suit with the county Human Relations Commission.
William Welch, executive director of the Prince George's County Human Relations Commission, says "too many prospective tenants are not aware of the county antidiscrimination code. The law states that it is wrongful to discriminate in the sale or rental of housing."
The Prince George's County code prohibits housing discrimination based on race, creed, color, sex, political opinion, personal appearance, age, national origin, physical or mental handicap, occupation or marital status.
Montgomery County also has a Human Relations Commission with which citizens can file discrimination charges against a landlord or agent.
According to Allan Dean, executive director of the Montgomery County Human Relations Commission, "if a landlord refuses to sublease, lease, transfer or otherwise negotiate a contract with a tenant, this would be considered in violation of housing standards."
"Most landlords don't fight commission cases," Welch said, "because they know full well they'll lose."
Welch added that after an investigation and a public hearing on the matter, the human relations commission "becomes empowered to order the landlord to do whatever is necessary to make [the tenants] whole."
In Montgomery County, the human relations commission works in conjunction with Realtor and apartment manager training classes. Maudlin said these meetings are to make potential landlords and realtors aware of the new housing laws.
Allan Rozansky, of Rozansky and Kay Construction Co., in Bethesda, said he "preferred settling disputes through the landlord-tenant affairs office."
"It's less costly on all parties, easier and quicker," he said. "Results have been equitable . . . I'd rather work (the problem) out that way than go to court."
Rozansky added his company takes tenant cases that involve nonpayment of rent to district court, but said few tenants end up being evicted.