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Montgomery still waiting for inspectors to create list of ‘problem’ apartments

Montgomery County Executive-elect Marc Elrich (D) wants to step up tenant protections.
Montgomery County Executive-elect Marc Elrich (D) wants to step up tenant protections. (Cal Cary for The Washington Post)
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For years as a Montgomery County council member, Marc Elrich pushed for legislation to better protect tenants. The effort gained momentum after a deadly gas explosion at a Silver Spring apartment complex in 2016 focused attention on living conditions there.

Elrich (D) led passage of a bill that requires county housing inspectors to create a list of “problem” apartment complexes that chronically generate code violations. While most buildings in the county are inspected every three years, those on the list are to be flagged for annual inspections meant to catch problems such as mice, roaches, bedbugs, faulty heating, water damage and mold.

But after thousands of additional inspections and violations, and with Elrich about to be sworn in as county executive, the list remains a work in progress.

Housing director Clarence Snuggs said it will come after his department finishes inspecting all the apartment complexes in the county — probably by July.

That means the list won’t happen on his watch. His last day on the job was Friday.

“The county executive-elect has decided to go in a different direction and will be selecting his own person to run the Department of Housing and Community Affairs, which I totally understand,” Snuggs, who was hired in 2014 by County Executive Isiah Leggett (D), said in an email.

Elrich, a self-styled “old-fashioned progressive,” has not yet selected a new housing director. But he said protecting tenants and making sure they have decent housing “is going to be job number one.”

“I’m going to want to see measurable progress on this,” he said. “I don’t want to go out a year from now and do another series of meetings and be told the same thing.”

Marc Elrich: Buoyed by his faithful in campaign for executive

Elrich, with the backing of tenant advocates, originally pushed for an annual inspection regime for all multifamily complexes. But Snuggs rejected the proposal as costly and unnecessary.

After much discussion, the bill that passed on Nov. 29, 2016, emerged as a compromise.

In an interview the day before Elrich’s election, Snuggs was asked what criteria his department would use to determine which buildings will make the list. He could not provide a specific answer.

“With the type of properties that are here, it’s a very complex evaluation process that’s done systematically,” he said, adding that the decision would be based in part on the severity and frequency of violations, as well as how landlords address them. “We do have factors that we consider as a part of that. We do have a definition.”

Council member Tom Hucker (D-District 5), a co-sponsor of Elrich’s bill, said that “there’s not a lot of evidence that Clarence really believes in the inspection regime that was set up by the bill.”

“He was against the bill to begin with,” Hucker said of Snuggs. “And then he’s made lots of excuses since then about why there’s not more happening.”

Snuggs has long disagreed with Elrich, Hucker and tenant advocates about what amounts to a problematic apartment building.

After the gas explosion at Flower Branch Apartments, which killed seven, injured 39 and left 63 families homeless in August 2016, those who had long wanted more-thorough inspections stepped up their push for the bill.

A 2013 inspection of the 362-apartment community identified more than 400 violations. But as Snuggs has noted, most of the violations were minor and none were related to the explosion, which has been attributed to a gas leak.

Slow probe by federal agency delays redress for victims of Flower Branch

“What happened at Flower Branch was a utility event — it was not a housing-code event,” Snuggs said in early November. “There’s no amount of chipping paint or bedbugs or anything like that that caused the Flower Branch apartments to explode and burn.”

He acknowledged that tenants may have issues with broken appliances, leaking toilets or bug infestations but said that is not unusual in a large complex where rents are relatively low.

“Yes, that exists in a number of properties across the county,” Snuggs said. “Was this an example of one of the most difficult properties in the county? No.”

Clark Melillo, president of Kay Management, which owns Flower Branch, declined to comment, citing litigation over the explosion. He has previously described the county citations as “terribly small” and quickly corrected.

Hucker disputes that line of thinking.

“I don’t know how anybody can defend the conditions in Flower Branch when every inspection you do, you find hundreds and hundreds of housing-code violations,” he said. “They find mice, rats, roaches, mold and mildew, and they continue to make excuses. It’s really hard to understand.”

Matt Losak, who directs the Montgomery County Renters Alliance and chaired the county work group that helped lead to Elrich’s bill, said he expects the new administration to take a much more proactive stance toward tenant rights.

Under Leggett, he said, “the department in my experience has been loath to use a heavy stick with property managers and landlords, not just in code enforcement but in other issues surrounding quality of life and renters’ rights.”

Losak said Snuggs’s department has suffered from conflicting priorities.

“On one side of his house is the mandate to work with landlords and developers to develop more housing, especially affordable housing,” he said. “At the same time, they’re also charged with regulating and enforcing the law against those interests.”

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