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A messy work session on a proposed bill to provide housing security is in danger of being drastically weakened by councilmembers with little concern for displaced tenants.
Last Monday, October 14, 2019, the Montgomery County Council Planning, Housing, and Economic Development Committee (PHED) met to a proposal to provide displaced tenants housing relocation assistance.
Bill 18-19 was proposed by Councilmember Will Jawando, who sits on the PHED committee, and would require landlords to pay their tenants three-month rent at the metro area’s fair market rent as relocation assistance when the tenant is displaced from their rental unit through no fault of their own. It would also allow the tenant the right to return to the uninhabitable unit once adequate repairs are made.
A ROCKY START
Monday’s work session got off to a rocky start. Will Jawando was late to the PHED meeting, it was the morning of the suicide of Montgomery County Police Officer T.J. Bomba and Jawando had been attending to the then ongoing investigation in Downtown Silver Spring. Hans Riemer and Andrew Friedson set the tone of the meeting by starting with various parts of the proposal they did not understand or were hesitant to support.
PHED Chair Councilmember Hans Riemer appeared uncomfortable with the broad definition given to “displaced tenants.”
Under proposed bill 18-19, a “displaced tenant” is one whose unit is condemned through no fault of the renter. Riemer believes this definition is too broad and conflicts with the exemption already drafted in the bill for landlords, whereby landlords are not obligated to pay relocation assistance when condemnation is a result of events beyond the landlord’s control. “Which of these two governs?” Riemer asked Council staff.
In response, Council staff said both are governing the process of relocation assistance. A tenant is displaced when the condemnation isn’t a result of the tenant acting to damage the property. The exemption for landlords should be understood as “acts of God/nature.”
A tenant displaced by a spontaneous house fire caused by a bolt of lightning, under the bill-as-proposed, would not be entitled to relocation assistance at the expense of their landlord. However, if the landlord had not properly wired the tenant’s rental unit, resulting in an electrical fire, the landlord is at fault and the tenant would be protected under the proposed bill.
Riemer was not completely satisfied by the explanation. He questioned who determines fault in the example of a house fire and further questioned who would be responsible for extreme mold due to unseasonably high rainfall.
DHCA stepped in to explain to the PHED committee the condemnation process. In the example of the house fire, the fire marshal investigates the incident to determine cause and who is at fault. Until the determination of what caused the fire, and therefore who is at fault, the unit cannot be condemned as unfit for human habitation. Accordingly, the tenant would not receive assistance – if they were entitled to it under the proposed law – until the investigation had been completed.
DHCA code inspectors answered Riemer’s question about mold caused by unseasonably high rainfall. First, according to code inspectors, mold is not a common cause of condemnations. If there were cause to condemn a rental unit, part of the investigation would include whether there was proper ventilation and drainage in the unit. Construction issues like lack of drainage would be the fault of the landlord. Otherwise, the event is outside the landlord’s control and therefore, the tenant does not receive relocation assistance.
In both hypothetical examples prompted by Riemer, a unit is not condemned until an investigation is completed. The investigation would include a review of complaints filed by the tenant against the landlord, highlighting the importance of tenants knowing and exerting their rights. When tenants report code violations or landlord abuses, they are compiling a clearer picture for investigators to see their unit should be condemned.
Councilmember Jawando considers this distinction important to the bill. Currently, tenants who submit code violations pertaining to subsequent condemnations are not protected by their vigilance and knowing their rights. The purpose of the proposed tenant relocation assistance bill is to guarantee those tenants assistance to find housing when theirs is condemned through no fault of their own. Jawando emphasized he hopes his tenant relocation assistance proposal doesn’t get widely used because it would serve as an incentive for landlords to correct problems when they are first reported rather than leveraging their power over vulnerable tenants.
WHO IS ELIGIBLE FOR TENANT RELOCATION ASSISTANCE?
The next point of discussion by the PHED committee was understanding which renters are covered under the proposed bill.
As written, the bill would only provide renter relocation assistance to tenants in licensed rental housing. Will Jawando noted his concern for the large number of tenants in unlicensed “room rentals” that would go unprotected by proposed bill 18-19. Montgomery County doesn’t have a licensing regime for permitting and renting single rooms of an otherwise occupied Single Family Home.
To obtain a rental license, the entire structure must be inspected and licensed to rent. This hasn’t stopped people from illegally renting out rooms (this author has lived in many room rentals). Unfortunately, while these rooms are often the cheapest housing the market provides, the tenants who rent them suffer from having almost zero tenant protections under county law.
Jawando emphasized his proposed relocation bill couldn’t include unlicensed room rentals because it would require establishing an entire licensing program. He tried to be the first in the work session to announce his staff was looking into such a program but he was interrupted by Riemer who also claimed he had directed staff to look into unlicensed room rentals (Commonwealth will closely follow the issue of unlicensed room rentals).
Unlicensed room rentals are not covered under the bill, but licensed Single Family Rental Housing (SFR) is and it is an area staff identifies as having a majority of condemned units. Council staff compiled a list of condemned units from the past few years showing a majority of condemnations occurred in single family rental homes (SFR) due to overcrowding and lack of egress (lack of exit for tenant).
Unless the tenant had constructed a blockage to the exit, the landlord would be at fault for renting a room that lacked proper exit. DHCA explained the landlord could move the tenant to a habitable, code-compliant room or provide temporary alternative housing to the tenant until the egress violation is corrected.
Overcrowding was a larger concern and is something many Montgomery County residents cite as a concern. During this year’s struggle to pass legislation reforming ADU zoning, the County Executive office and NIMBY opposition cited overcrowded roads as a reason to continue strict parking requirements. Hans Riemer, who was a YIMBY during the ADU discussion, pivoted to a similar argument centered on overcrowding during the PHED work session on tenant relocation.
Riemer, who was careful to avoid using the term “landlord” throughout the worksession, asked if it was reasonable to make landlords responsible for the relocation expenses of overcrowded tenants. Doing so, according to Riemer (and later Friedson) could require a landlord pay for the relocation of tenants who couldn’t legally live in the unit.
DHCA responded that, assuming the landlord knew they were overcrowding the rental structure, they would be found at fault for the resulting condemnations. However, under the bill-as-written, the landlord is only responsible for tenants who are signed onto the lease. Overcrowded tenants, or tenants illegally sub-leasing space, would not be entitled to relocation assistance.
And to Riemer’s point as to whether it is “reasonable” to saddle landlords with rents they don’t themselves receive, who is to say it is reasonable to push those expenses to the tenant, who by definition is displaced due to a negligent landlord?
DEMAND A STRONG RELOCATION ASSISTANCE BILL
By far the most important, but least discussed, component of the proposed renter relocation bill is the amount of the relocation payment itself.
As proposed, the landlord would be required to pay the displaced tenants the remaining portion of the month’s rent, their security deposit, and three-months of rent at Fair Market Rate (according to the rate established by the U.S. Dept. Housing and Urban Development rate for the Arlington-Alexandria-Washington area).
Jawando described this relocation amount as “crucial” to the bill’s purpose but Andrew Friedson sharply disagreed.
Friedson asserted that the three-month rent at market rate for the region was an “apples to oranges” comparison of rents between the tenant’s condemned unit and other housing in the area. Friedson claimed it is “cleaner” if the relocation “cushion” is two month rent at the rent of the condemned unit. Commonwealth asks, “cleaner for whom? The landlord or tenant?”
Friedson’s proposal is to drastically reduce the assistance a tenant will realistically need to receive when they loss their home through no fault of their own.
Jawando was quick to object to Friedson. His argument is reasonable. The housing market does not blink an eye when a tenant who has been renting at a certain rate for a number of years is forced back onto the housing market. Sky-high housing costs are a regional phenomenon and the Montgomery County area is repeatedly claimed to have a shortage of adequate affordable housing. Therefore, Friedson is wrong to assume a tenant could even find a similar unit in the same area of their condemned home, much less make the necessary payments with two months of their previous rent.
Jawando further corrected Friedson on the purpose of the bill. The “cushion” of three-month rent at fair market rate isn’t just for a new home. Displaced tenants have a number of expenses when they unexpectedly lose their home. Hiring movers, childcare, taking time off work are just a few of the expenses imposed on a tenant during displacement. Jawando noted some jurisdictions require more assistance for elderly, disabled, or young renters, which Jawando hasn’t enumerated in his bill but indicated his willingness to do so if necessary.
Friedson was still not convinced. As the PHED meeting drew to a close, the obstinate councilmember made even more crude remarks concerning Montgomery County renters. Friedson (and Riemer had done this before him in a more cunning way) implied renters seeking cheap housing may make an informal agreement they both recognize is wrong in order to mutually benefit. As Friedson claimed:
“The challenge is landlords who want to lease a room that is uninhabitable…but you also have a tenant who wants a room they can afford…Both parties enter into a contract that they both know they shouldn’t be involved with.”
This libertarian fantasia of Friedson’s was met with the quick rebuke of DHCA’s Office of Landlord Tenant Affairs manager (and tenant champion), Rosie McCray Moody, who shot back, “Is that what you want? To have a business reputation of unlawful dealings, renting when they know they shouldn’t?”
Friedson doubled-down, to the visible ire of Will Jawando. “I’m not necessarily arguing that,” he backtracked, “I’m just pointing out the windfall aspect to this. You take a well-below market rate unit that the tenant knows they aren’t supposed to be in and it’s the businessperson’s fault for renting to them. But then you get three-months rent of a room in the entire metropolitan area and it’s a MUCH much greater amount.” (emphasis Friedson’s).
This visibly shocked Will Jawando, who immediately stepped in to correct Friedson. “I wouldn’t call it a windfall. This is somebody who has to move and find a place to live. Again, we’re talking about someone’s house, where they live.”
Friedson’s response could chill even Ebenezer Scrooge’s heart. “From a financial dollars and cents standpoint, it’s significantly larger,” he shot back. Note how Andrew Friedson, and to a lesser extent, Hans Riemer, assumes renters have the savvy, time, and expertise to profit off a law that grants them basic protections from immediate homelessness.
The PHED committee moved on to the next agenda item shortly thereafter but not before Riemer made a callous remark of his own. Jawando expressed to the Chair his disappointment that no decision besides approving two minor (good) amendments proposed by DHCA and Habitat for Humanity would be made. Riemer responded, “What’s the rush?” Jawando, who is the only visible tenant-supporter on the PHED committee only replied, “We’ve delayed this a couple of times already, but, ok?” The entire of the tenant community in Montgomery County could have probably sighed with exasperation, and outrage, right alongside Will Jawando at that point.
Some of our elected officials care much more about the “financial dollars and cents” perspective of landlords than tenants who lose their homes. That needs to change.
Commonwealth encourages reader to take a moment to use our draft advocacy letter to remind Andrew Friedson and Hans Riemer that tenant relocation assistance is a crucial part of tenants’ rights.
-“Problem Tenant” Erik Write