A Montgomery County law that took effect last week requires owners of rental condominiums and cooperative units to comply with the county licensing provisions, including a stipulation that they must have an agent who is a Maryland resident.
The law is an an extension of requirements already imposed on apartment owners. It is designed to give authorities someone to hold accountable in legal actions when landlords live out of state and cannot be summonsed to Maryland courts except in criminal cases, according to Richard Ferrara, executive director of the county Landlord-Tenant Commission.
Some area landlords complained that the licensing requirements are burdensome for small operators who may find it difficult to find someone willing to stand as their agent.
But Ferrara said that requiring landlords to establish a representative in Maryland was the only way to enforce legal actions concerning landlord-tenant disputes, leases, evictions and security deposits.
"It is an inconvenience and I regret that," Ferrara said. "But there's no way a tenant is going to be able to collect a judgment from you if you are an out-of-state landlord. And we have landlords living, literally, all over the world" who rent places in Montgomery.
The council last November passed a law bringing condominums and co-operative units under county rental laws. That requires landlords to get a $19 license each year for each unit. Only those units rented to an owner's relatives are exempt.
Realtors had lobbied for an exemption for owners renting only one unit, but the council rejected that shortly before voting.
"That caught us flat-footed. We thought it was all set," said Harold H. Huggins, chairman of the Montgomery County Board of Realtors' property management committee. "Frankly, we were betrayed in the twelfth hour."
Huggins, who himself rents out a condominium in Montgomery, said he considered the action "just another way of fleecing the investment population here." He said landlords who live away and rent one or few units will likely have trouble finding someone to represent them.
"Who's going to want to do that for them?" Huggins said. "I think the overall effect is that people who are in it as a casual investment will sell their units if there gets to be too much hassle with the government."
Condominium buildings are already subject to an inspection once every three years, with a sampling of units examined, Ferrara said.
According to Ferrara, the agent is responsible to act as the owner's representative in commission proceedings and court actions stemming from tenant complaints and county regulations.
The landlord would be the one required to pay fines and court judgments, he said, but "technically, and I do mean technically, the agent could be prosecuted for his actions."
Apartments have been required since 1972 to have an in-state representative, Ferrara said, and in no case he recalled did the agent wind up bearing financial responsibility for a balking landlord.
"All the agent is doing is acting as someone to receive official notice about proceedings," Ferrara said. "If we can't serve a summons, there's nothing we can do."
Before the county required in-state agents, he said, "We'd send letters and certified mail and they'd just throw them in the trash."