SILVER SPRING, Md. - When the housing boom went bust, more Americans started renting, even in affluent Montgomery County.
"The demographics have changed. We've gone from single digit renters to almost 30 percent of the county," says Matt Losak, who formed the Montgomery County Renters Alliance two years ago.
"The demand for rental housing is way up and landlords are taking full advantage of that."
Losak says rents also are going up - way up.
"You're seeing fewer kinds of repairs. You're seeing rents go up many, many times more than the county's voluntary rent increase guidelines. Renters are afraid that they're not going to be able to live in Montgomery County year in and year out," says Losak.
Renters from across the county crowded into a packed meeting room at the Silver Spring Civic Center Tuesday night and heard from Phil Ziperman, with the Maryland Attorney General's Office on Consumer Affairs. Ziperman has recovered money for renters who were ripped off by landlords who charged exorbitant holding fees.
Ziperman says some landlords have told renters, "'You can have this apartment but you have to pay us a $150,' and if you change your mind and don't want to rent it, they keep it. That's not legal. You can't do that."
Ziperman told the crowd his office had recovered nearly $1 million in holding fees alone.
One retiree, who didn't want to be identified because she feared possible retaliation by her landlords, said when she first came to Montgomery County she was offered a 15 percent discount, a month's free rent, covered utilities and free parking.
Since then, three years ago, her rent has gone up by nearly $450 a month and the perks have disappeared. On top of that, she'll have to pay utilities and $75 a month for parking. Now she says, she'll have to go back to work.
"I would love to have more time to spend with my grandchildren, but it doesn't look like that's going to happen."
Losak cites the case of a 37-year resident of a Silver Spring apartment complex who complained about fire doors in her building. When the fire marshals came to check the fire doors, the property managers said they wanted to talk to the tenant. Days later, she was handed paperwork explaining that the offer of a year-to-year lease had been rescinded. Her lease would now run month-to-month, not year-to-year.
She was also told she could expect monthly increases.
This was impossible on the woman's fixed income, Losak said. Losak says his group went to bat for her, and succeeded in changing the lease back to a year-to-year arrangement.
Also present at the meeting, Maryland Delegate Tom Hucker and Montgomery County Councilmember Marc Elrich. Both told residents that if they wanted to expand their rights as renters, they'd have to exercise their civic rights and become politically active.
Elrich told the group he'd tried unsuccessfully to push rent stabilization legislation, but if renters raised their voices they'd have a better chance of seeing that change.
Likewise, Hucker told the audience, "I know together we can win a lot of respect and a lot of reforms for tenants in Montgomery County."
(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)