Montgomery County is hiring more than a dozen new housing inspectors as part of a broad effort to crack down on unresponsive landlords, code violations and poor conditions in rental apartments.
The initiative, which began this summer, was touted Thursday by County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) and other officials who gathered at Pooks Hill Tower and Court apartments in Bethesda to unveil a public campaign to educate low-income tenants about their rights.
"Too often, we don't hear from our tenants," said Council member Tom Hucker (D-Eastern County). "Tenants need to know that the county government is listening, that we're on their side."
The county is posting ads on buses and in apartment complexes, stores and recreation centers that say renters can call a 311 hotline to file anonymous complaints against landlords or receive help with tenant advocacy and conflict mediation. The ads also tell tenants that landlords cannot evict them for taking such actions.
About one-third of the county's nearly 1 million residents rent their homes, according to census data. Housing is increasingly expensive in the jurisdiction, which is Maryland's largest, and affordable options are increasingly scarce.
After passing legislation last year to strengthen tenant protections, the county is requiring all multifamily buildings in the county to be inspected for code violations over the next two years. Those with significant problems must be reexamined annually, and their landlords will have to pay a fee for each follow-up review until the issues are resolved. Those with minor or no issues will be inspected every three years, with no fee.
"We can bring this housing stock up to a level of decency that it has not been at in many, many years," said council member Marc Elrich (D-At Large), who is running for county executive in 2018, when Leggett is slated to retire, and co-sponsored the 2016 bill with Hucker. "And once it's there, we can keep it there."
The county's previous policy was to inspect all multifamily buildings every three years. Inspectors had struggled to meet that standard.
The 2016 legislation passed after two years of committee hearings and behind-the-scenes negotiations with property owners and tenant groups. It gained momentum after an explosion and fire last year at the Flower Branch Apartments in Silver Spring killed seven people and left 100 homeless.
Leggett said the campaign "marks a unique chapter in our efforts to make sure we are delivering on our promises."
Matt Losak, executive director of the Montgomery County Renters Alliance, said tenant advocates will press the county for data on its inspection efforts to ensure that officials are holding landlords accountable by charging fees to those with repeat violations.
Losak said county officials also should consider measures to prevent landlords from declining lease renewals without a legitimate justification and punish them for evicting tenants in retaliation for reporting problems to authorities.
"It doesn't take much to intimidate an entire community," he said. "All you need is to make an example of one person, and the rest will be scared."
Elrich and Hucker had ideas for more measures, too.
In interviews, they said a good next step would be to enact legislation allowing courts to reduce rental rates for people whose landlords do not fix problems in a timely fashion.
"I think we could get the votes on that," Hucker said. "I don't think it would be that controversial, because the good landlords wouldn't fight it."
Elrich said he might propose a rent-stabilization measure to complement the inspections bill.