The obvious need to investigate what caused the Flower Branch fire and explosion in Silver Spring may risk overshadowing a broader and critical analysis of the disaster that killed seven residents, including two children, injured more than 30 others and displaced more than 100 people from their homes.
Tenants at Flower Branch Apartments and many complexes throughout Maryland live in fear of eviction and other retaliatory actions for pursuing their rights to quality homes, promised services and required maintenance as well as life-safety concerns.
Most local and state codes in Maryland require landlords to maintain living conditions that entitle tenants to quiet enjoyment of their premises and safe, quality homes that include working appliances, heating and ventilation systems, doors that adequately lock, windows that shut and living space free of mold and vermin as well as services promised in their leases. But, often, the gap between what tenants are entitled to and what the landlords deliver is too wide.
Unlike homeowners who can act on their own behalf to make repairs or call in professionals, such as exterminators or plumbers, renters must rely on a landlord to act. In a healthy apartment community, a tenant with a maintenance issue simply calls the property manager, who addresses the issue in a reasonable time frame.
Yet for some renters, the first communication with their property manager or landlord is a first step into frustration and, in some cases, threats. Some property managers blame tenants for apartment problems or tell them flat out that if they keep demanding services or maintenance, they will be evicted, their lease not renewed or their rent raised out of reach. Threats and belligerence are not unusual. At one complex, management issued memos to tenants threatening “fines” as high as $50 per instance for children playing on the grass. In another communication, seniors were threatened with eviction if found dozing in community chairs.
Unlike the District, Maryland does not have a just-cause eviction law that requires a landlord to automatically renew a lease with the same terms absent a good reason. And there is no rent stabilization, except in Takoma Park. So with just 60 days notice before time to renew a lease (for month-to-month tenants, this can occur at virtually any time), a landlord can evict a tenant or raise the rent to any amount for any reason.
For families with children in school, senior citizens and anyone with roots in their home and community, these are overwhelming concerns.
Many renters (perhaps most), as well as landlords and property managers, are ignorant of their rights and responsibilities and how to seek assistance. For those who do understand how to proceed, the task can be daunting.
For code violations, such as mold, vermin, broken air conditioners, peeling paint and the like, filing a code violation can take as long as 45 days to resolve, and many times not adequately. The code cites “visible” violations that can be easily hidden, such as by painting over mold, only to have it return weeks later. For landlord-tenant disputes, complaints can take weeks or months and go into mediation, sometimes pitting a lone renter against a landlord, his staff and lawyers. And if the mediation results are disputed by either side, the complaint proceeds through a process that can take additional weeks or months while a renter’s home hangs in the balance.
Renting is not always a station on the way to owning. Legislation is pending in Montgomery County that would intensify code enforcement and provide renters with modest protections, such as requiring a landlord to offer a two-year lease at each lease renewal or offering tenant organizations the right to meet without charging meeting room fees.
As long as renters fear retaliation or face an uphill, frustrating process to resolve complaints, a chilling effect will endure, discouraging vigilant apartment maintenance and code enforcement and increasing the risk that dangerous conditions are neglected.
The writer is executive director of the Montgomery County Renters Alliance. He chaired the county’s Tenants Work Group from 2008 to 2010.