Hucker spearheads crackdown on unmaintained vacant properties

Today, the County Council unanimously passed the second piece of Councilmember Tom Hucker’s effort to crack down on empty, deteriorating houses that drag down a neighborhood’s property values and quality of life.

The bill, which the Council passed on May 2, would require owners of vacant houses to register with the county. It would also require owners of unmaintained homes to pay inspection and other fees. The proposal is a companion to Hucker’s bill requiring owners of foreclosed homes – typically big banks and hedge funds – to register with the county in a timely fashion. The council passed that measure on April 18.

Currently, the county can fine owners of vacant, unmaintained homes up to $500 for code violations that aren’t addressed within two or three months. But these fines can be disputed in court, where judges often extend the deadline and reduce or eliminate the fine, Hucker said.

Hucker’s bill would instead impose fees, similar to those imposed for making false fire alarms. The property owner is charged the fee directly, without any court intervention. And like the fire alarm penalties, the fees would increase with each additional inspection.

Fees for fire alarms start at $25 and climb to $600. Inspection fees under the registry program would likely be higher.

Hucker estimates there are more than 350 known vacant properties in Montgomery County – with hundreds more that are unidentified. Many are inherited or are owned by out-of-state residents or developers “who simply have no short-term incentive to care for the property or put it back on the market,” Hucker said in a memo to the council.

“Vacant properties can not only be an eyesore, they also pose serious threats to the community,” he said. “Research shows they attract squatting, arson and other criminal activity. Vacant properties place a burden on our public safety and housing resources because they are twice as likely to generate a call for fire or police service than a non-vacant property and they have been found to reduce the community’s property values by as much as 9 percent.”

In fact, some such homes in Hucker’s own Silver Spring neighborhood have been the subject of complaints for almost 10 years, he said.

Sometimes, the county will perform basic maintenance on these properties and place a lien on them to cover those costs. But often that’s still not enough incentive for a negligent owner to rent, sell or occupy the house.

Under Hucker’s bill, the county’s Department of Housing and Community Affairs would actively inspect unmaintained vacant properties and inspect them for code violations. Any subsequent inspections would result in the owner being charged a fee.

Hucker said similar approaches to this problem have been successful in Chicago, Los Angeles and Wilmington, Del. The registry in Wilmington showed a 40 percent drop in vacant properties two years after it was established.

In determining whether a property is vacant, the bill directs the county staff to look for indications such as past due utility notices; disconnected utilities; accumulated mail; no window coverings; no observable furniture; open accessibility; deferred maintenance; and whether the home is boarded up.

Properties that are being renovated or are being sold or rented would not be required to be registered. Also, homeowners who are away for a period of time but plan to return need not register.

The bill has picked up numerous endorsements from homeowner and civic groups, the Greater Capital Area Association of Realtors, and the Justice and Advocacy Council of Montgomery County for the Archdiocese of Washington.