Many Montgomery County residents have little voice in how much it costs to live here. In Silver Spring, more than 60 percent of residents are renters.
After the 2008 mortgage market bust, more people found rental housing an attractive alternative to buying a home. A drive down any major thoroughfare in Montgomery County shows rental housing construction continuing at a hurried pace.
Until now, there have been few controls on how much a landlord or property manager can raise a family’s annual rent. Although Montgomery County suggests a maximum yearly increase — in 2015, it is 2.3 percent — it’s only a suggestion. Families often face double that amount or more. If a tenant can’t afford the rental increase, the only alternative is to move out, regardless of the turmoil. At a landlord’s whim, children are forced to change schools, and parents face longer commutes and less time to spend with their families.
If tenants complain about substandard housing — fire hazards, moldy dwellings, rats, roaches, leaky plumbing — they can be singled out for a landlord’s wrath. With no more than 60 days’ warning, a family who has paid its rent on time and lived quietly in its home can have its lease revoked. Families can be subjected to verbal abuse and threats of legal action simply for asking that their dwellings be kept up to county building, plumbing and electrical code.
Bill 19-15, which is pending before the Montgomery County Council, would strengthen rental housing data collection, end outrageous month-to-month lease fees, increase code inspection of rental properties, require landlords to justify excessive rent increases and require leases to be written in clear language. It’s about time.
Prompted by a petition signed by nearly 1,000 renters in 2008, County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) convened the Tenants Work Group to look into an extensive list of security and quality-of-life concerns voiced by the growing population of county residents living in rental housing.
The work group’s report made more than 50 recommendations to the council and the executive for improved government responsiveness and legal protection. Included was rent stabilization, similar to Takoma Park’s successful program to protect renters from excessive rent increases, and a just-cause eviction law requiring landlords to provide a good reason for non-renewal of leases. The report called for increased building code inspections, more responsive landlord and tenant services, creation of a tenant advocacy organization, plain-language model leases and increased outreach and education for tenants and landlords.
At Leggett’s direction in 2012, the Department of Housing and Community Affairs agreed to many of these recommendations, including those proposed in the bill. Unfortunately, few of the recommendations were acted upon. The County Council needs to pay closer attention to the growing number of its constituents who rent their homes and enact laws and regulations appropriate to their needs. Bill 19-15 is a good example. As one of the three in five Silver Spring citizens who rent, I intend to watch how this bill fares before the council.
It is time the council stops listening to developers, landlords and investment companies that bankroll their campaigns and starts protecting the one-third of county residents who live in rental housing. The council should pass Bill 19-15 now.