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Frederick crafting rental-property policy

Thursday - 2/16/2012, 6:00am  ET


Frederick's five-year effort to identify scofflaw owners of rental properties and force them to bring their buildings up to city code will take at least 90 more days, but it has new direction.

Alderwoman Karen Young summarized Wednesday five years of local and state research that caused her and other city leaders to refrain from setting up a rental registry or licensing policy to address chronic overcrowding and property maintenance violations.

Instead, they want to use available databases and enforcement tools, focus on known violators, hire more code enforcement officers, educate owners and renters, and devise legal options to gain search warrants.

Owners that fail to comply must face consequences up to and including the loss of property, Alderman Michael O'Connor said.

Gaining the right to enter buildings is critical, Dan Hoffman, acting manager of code enforcement, said in an interview.

"Our problem's always been right of entry," he said.

Alderwoman Kelly Russell said the legal standard to allow inspectors inside private property is difficult "because this is the United States," and probable cause must be found.

Under current policy, the owner or occupant must open the door for a code inspector to get inside.

Hoffman has favored a rental licensing policy because it would not cost much, but it would do a great deal -- by requiring annual inspections.

Hoffman told the aldermen that overcrowding used to be more common, but the economic downturn has driven many renters away. Now properties that used to prompt overcrowding complaints are vacant and poorly maintained, he said.

About 300 properties out of the city's more than 20,000 generate most of the complaints, he said.

Just one inspector could go through each year and determine if a property was up to code for safety and livability, Hoffman said. His goal is to give owners a chance to correct the violations, not to impose high fines.

"That's not what this is about," he said.

The aldermen decided a new registry is not needed when existing databases can be expanded to include new details.

Hoffman told them he can make a note on databases indicating whether properties that generate complaints are rented or owner-occupied.

In the next 90 days, aldermen suggested the departments pertaining to code enforcement, planning, police, legal matters and information technology should collaborate to make recommendations about database creation, a public education campaign and legal methods.

Those recommendations should get a six-month trial, after which they can stand, be revised or be scrapped, Young said.

"We need to have some timelines and keep this moving, so we're not still talking about it in another five years."