New legislation in Prince George’s County aims to hold landlords and property managers accountable for prostitution and human trafficking at their rental properties — the latest sign of a growing concern in an immigrant-rich corner of the Washington suburb.
County Council member Deni Taveras (D-Adelphi) proposed the bill after receiving complaints from several Langley Park-area mothers, who said units in their apartment buildings were being used as brothels and the property managers knew about it.
Taveras says police told her that they would like more legal tools to discourage landlords from leasing to individuals involved in sex trafficking, or forcing women and girls, often immigrants in this country illegally, to engage in prostitution.
The bill makes it a misdemeanor to “knowingly” allow use of an apartment or home for prostitution or trafficking, punishable with a $1,000 fine or six months in jail. It passed the council unanimously last week, and a spokesman for County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) said he will sign it into law.
“This can only stop when the property owner feels the pain and curtails this kind of activity,” Taveras said. “This is a mechanism that holds the entire chain of individuals, not just the pimp, responsible for what happens at these apartments.”
The legislation is tailored to address criminal activity that police, government officials and community activists say is happening in the largely Hispanic immigrant community of Langley Park.
“There are men coming in and out of the apartments all night long,” said Maria DeLeon, who lives in Langley Park and has sought help from Taveras. “It’s scary to know your family is only one or two doors away from it all. I’m frightened for my children.”
Michael Lyles, co-chair of a task force in Prince George’s that develops recommendations for how to fight human trafficking, said gangs such as MS-13 are extorting money from forced prostitution rings, charging them for protection and providing lookouts. Men and women are being trafficked up and down the Interstate 95 corridor, Lyles said, and moved from apartment to apartment to evade authorities.
Different jurisdictions have different tools for targeting human traffickers. In the District, nuisance abatement boards can penalize landlords for harboring illegal activity and benefiting financially. In Montgomery County, lawmakers have imposed strict regulations on businesses, such as massage parlors, that are thought to be fronts for illegal activity including prostitution.
But the Prince George’s law takes those efforts a step further by assigning criminal charges to those who “knowingly” sublease, assign, transfer possession, or permit use of an apartment or home for prostitution or trafficking.
“It’s a crime of economics. And so if individuals are profiting from this business that’s where we have to tackle cutting the head off the snake,” said Jeanne Allert, founder and executive director of the Samaritan Women, a group that tries to help trafficking victims.
The Apartment and Office Building Association of Metropolitan Washington said state laws that focus on property owners whose home or building becomes a haven for drug manufacturing or sale should provide enough of a deterrent. State’s attorneys can also use civil forfeiture laws to seize homes and properties where illegal activity is taking place.
“We don’t want drug activity or prostitution on or near our premises,” said Ronald Wineholt, the association’s vice president of government affairs. “We support prosecuting these crimes, but it’s not entirely clear to us how this language will lead to stronger enforcement.”
But John Erzen, spokesman for the Prince George’s state’s attorney office, said there is no state law that attempts to hold property owners or managers criminally liable for human trafficking, he said.
“The intention is to provide a tool against those who are committing it or know it’s being committed,” he said.
Critics questioned how prosecutors and investigators will be able to prove landlords or property managers know about trafficking and have done nothing to stop it.
Taveras said she thinks that property owners, when faced with the possibility of charges, will address problems before they become “deeply rooted in the community.”
The law also formalizes the county’s system for reporting sex-trafficking crimes. Complaints phoned into the county’s 311 line will be routed to Lyles’s Human Relations Commission and to police. Landlords can call to find out whether their property has been reported and request training workshops so building employees can better identify the signs of trafficking.
Assistant Prince George’s Police Chief Hector Velez called the law a “step in the right direction.”
“It is effective because it sends a message,” he said. “Having something like this puts people on notice that you can’t turn a blind eye . . . and they are a part of the solution. And if you’re not helping, you’ll be held accountable.”
Earlier versions of this article incorrectly said that the Apartment and Office Building Association of Metropolitan Washington opposed the anti-trafficking law. The association did not take a position against the law.