Owners of vacant, deteriorating houses could pay hundreds of dollars in fees for failing to fix their properties under a bill passed unanimously by the Montgomery County Council on Tuesday.
There are at least 350 vacant houses in Montgomery, many owned by out-of-state residents or developers “who simply have no short-term incentive to care for the property or put it back on the market,” Tom Hucker (D-Eastern County), the bill’s sponsor, said in a memo to his fellow council members.
Under county law, owners of vacant homes face fines of up to $500 for failing to clear up code violations within 90 days. But fines can be contested in court, where proceedings are often delayed and penalties lowered.
Hucker’s bill imposes an escalating schedule of fees — similar to those charged to owners for false fire alarms — that can’t be contested. The measure calls for the county housing department to begin a registry of poorly maintained vacant properties and inspect them for code violations. Owners whose homes remain in poor condition after 90 days would be charged for each subsequent county inspection. (Fees for false alarms start at $25 and can reach $4,000 for 20 alarm calls.)
County officials will develop a new vacant housing fee system for council approval.
“Vacant properties cannot only be an eyesore, they also pose serious threats to the community,” Hucker said. “Research shows they attract squatting, arson and other criminal activity. Vacant properties place a burden on our public safety and housing resources because they are twice as likely to generate a call for fire or police service than a nonvacant property.”
The bill is a companion to a measure passed by the council two weeks ago to establish civil penalties for owners of properties purchased in foreclosure sales who fail to register the transaction with the county.
Nine to 18 months frequently elapse between the time a property enters foreclosure — usually when purchased by banks or out-of-state investors — and when it is resold. During that period, owners of foreclosed properties often fail to record a deed of sale, making it difficult for the county to determine who is responsible for taxes and upkeep. Such properties have been dubbed “zombie foreclosures.”