MoCo Renter Protection Bill Passes

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Several provisions got stripped out in the final review, but in the words of Renters Alliance honcho Matt Losak, “it’s a good start.” Council Bill 19-15 passes the Montgomery County Council unanimously yesterday. First, Bill Turque in the Post.

The Montgomery County Council unanimously approved legislation Tuesday to make a suburb that has been a bastion of homeownership more hospitable for residents who rent.

The bill, sponsored by council member Marc Elrich (D-At Large), would require annual county inspections of “problem” apartment buildings that generate numerous code violations. It also establishes a “repair and deduct” provision that under certain circumstances would allow tenants to fix problems and deduct the cost from their rent if landlords are slow to respond.
Landlords would have to offer tenants who renew their lease an option to stay for two years, and county housing officials would have to make apartment rents and other data they collect in an annual survey available to the public. The county’s housing director would report to the council each year on code citations issued and fines paid — broken out by specific landlords.
County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) is expected to sign the bill into law.
About one-third of Montgomery residents rent their housing, according to census data. Tenant advocates contend that while Montgomery’s renter population has grown, county policies until now have remained oriented toward homeowners and primarily have benefited landlords and property management companies whose campaign contributions afford them political clout.
The Elrich bill, co-sponsored by council members Nancy Navarro (D-Mid-County) and Tom Hucker (D-Eastern County), went through two years of committee hearings and behind-the-scenes negotiations with property owners and tenant groups.

Renters Alliance statement, via email:

The passage of Renter Protection Bill 19-15 is a good first step. It provides common sense and meaningful provisions to help protect renters. We thank the County Council for its unanimous support for this bill. We also thank all of our allies, especially UFCW 1994, the Montgomery County Young Democrats, CHEER, Progressive Neighbors, Safe Silver Spring, Jews United for Justice, Saint Camillus Multicultural Parish and the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington and CASA as well as all of our thousands of Renters, Renter Activists and Tenant Associations.

We also express our gratitude to the bill’s co-sponsors: Council Members Tom Hucker and Nancy Navarro whose early support for the bill was critical to the final bill’s success.
In 2007, over 1000 renters signed a petition urging the County Executive Isiah Leggett to enact rent stabilization and just-cause eviction law, end month-to-month lease fees, and establish a working group to look into tenant issues and propose recommendations. From 2008-2010, Mr. Leggett appointed the Tenants Work Group (TWG) to meet regularly to research issues and concerns and develop recommendations. The TWG issued its report containing more than 50 recommendations to the Council and Executive in 2010.
Throughout this process, there was Council Member Marc Elrich. Building on a long history as a champion of renters’ rights in Takoma Park, he advised Matt Losak (now Renters Alliance Executive Director) and a small group of active tenants to demonstrate to County government that renters have a voice by developing an initial petition. He advised the County Executive to support and establish a Tenants Work Group, which Mr. Leggett did becoming the first County Executive to support such an effort. Mr. Elrich worked with the TWG for two solid years, and, when the recommendations of the TWG went unheard for too long, he proposed the first package of renter protection legislation to be successfully passed by the County.

As noted, several key provisions of the original bill were removed.

Some of Elrich’s original provisions fell out of the final version, including one that would have barred landlords from adding rent surcharges if a tenant wanted to switch to a month-to-month lease. A proposal for a standard lease to be used in all rental properties was also eliminated.

Still, Elrich called it “a very good bill.”
Steve Silverman, a former council member and county economic development director who lobbied on behalf of major property owners affected by the bill, said the legislation offers “a fair and balanced approach.” His clients included including Bozzuto, Southern Management, Tower Cos. and Washington Property.
The bill does not provide renters with some of the major protections available elsewhere. The District, for example, has a strong rent-control law, while Montgomery County under this bill would continue to recommend an annual rent-increase limit that is strictly voluntary and often ignored by landlords.
There is also no specific protection for tenants against retaliatory evictions. Montgomery landlords can still decline to renew a lease without offering a specific, or legitimate, reason.

That last amendment is particularly disappointing. Allowing landlords to refuse to renew leases for any reason, and putting the burden on tenants to prove an improper motivation, is very problematic. But all in all, I’d agree with matt Losak that passing a bill with some significant new tenant protections is very much a good first step.

I also find it encouraging that Councilmember Roger Berliner is quoted in the Post story as saying he supports the creation of an entity like DC’s Office of the Tenant Advocate, which has the power to negotiate and go to court on behalf of tenants. That would be an important step forward in providing tenants with the means of enforcing their rights. I’ve spent a lot of time in landlord/tenant court – it’s not a good place for tenants, who rarely can afford representation to do battle with the well-heeled horde of landlord lawyers on the other side.

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