A new report by the University of Maryland (UMD) reveals that lax housing code enforcement, limited county resources and lack of tenants’ rights are major factors contributing to the health and safety issues in multifamily housing in parts of Prince George’s County. Housing Matters: Ensuring Quality, Safe and Healthy Housing in Langley Park, MD, was released jointly last week by the University of Maryland and CASA, the leading immigrant’s rights organization in the Mid-Atlantic region, based on a two-year effort to work with residents, county officials, and landlords to improve housing conditions. The report sheds light on the aging, often neglected affordable housing stock prevalent in inner-ring suburbs and the critical need for housing investments to protect the health and safety of residents. With a focus on Langley Park, a predominately Latino immigrant neighborhood in Prince George’s County just two miles from College Park, the report calls for improved housing code regulations, resources and enforcement as well as safeguards for tenants.
The report documents code enforcement violations and other poor living conditions in 13 apartment complexes in Langley Park. Built approximately 60 years ago, these complexes represent roughly 70% of Langley Park’s housing stock, and contain two of the six properties on the county’s list of distressed properties.
Violations range from pests, mold, outdated wiring and poor maintenance, which constitute environmental and health hazards for residents, the report states. While over 3,100 housing code violations were issued between 2014 and 2017, the report estimates that actual numbers are likely much higher. A combination of scarce county resources to conduct regular, non-emergency inspections and tenants’ apprehension to report violations leaves many issues unaccounted for, the report notes.
“There are a lot of challenges in addressing tenants’ issues,” says Urban Studies and Planning Associate Professor and Wilson Center Fellow Willow Lung-Amam, the report’s lead author. “Fear related to their legal status, threats of eviction or other landlord retaliatory actions often prevents tenants from reporting. There are not enough supports in place to help tenants organize and advocate for better conditions.”
The problem is made worse by the county’s large supply of aging multifamily housing and limited resources to enforce housing code. During the study period, Prince George’s County had only five code enforcement officers to inspect around 99,000 multifamily housing units across the county. While mandatory inspections occurred for property license renewals, capacity issues prevented the county from doing much beyond responding to 311 calls for service. A lack of technology and database systems, the report states, muddles how the county tracks violations and a lack of regulation prevents enforcement officers from administering penalties to landlords with multiple and repeated violations.
“With the current code enforcement resources and polices, all the county can do is respond. They have a hard time being proactive,” says Lung-Amam. “Only the really bad apples get the county’s attention and all the county can do is threaten to take away their license. It’s a pretty hard situation for tenants.”
Some Prince George’s County lawmakers are eager to see the situation change. The report comes on the heels of a proposed bill to improve housing quality and tenant rights throughout the county called the Fair Housing Act (CB-56-2019). Introduced earlier this month by Prince George’s County Councilmember Tom Dernoga with the support of several county representatives, the bill, if passed, would update multifamily housing code regulations, better protect tenants’ rights to organize and improve code enforcement and data collection.
Recommendations outlined in the proposed legislation mirror many of those in the report. They include strengthening tenant rights; requiring training and certification of all property managers; increasing code enforcement capacity, including upgrading technology and database systems; conducting more regular inspections, particularly of distressed properties; and improving mechanisms for mediation between landlords and tenants.
CASA’s Executive Director Gustavo Torres said, “This is a great example of the community, stakeholders, and elected officials coming together to address an important issue. This bill presents a great opportunity for Prince George’s County to live in quality housing and for the county to be an example for other jurisdictions.”
“This is not unique to Prince George’s County,” adds Dr. Lung-Amam. “We’ve seen disinvestment of many inner-ring suburbs. Many communities across the country are facing similar challenges.”
Housing Matters: Ensuring Quality, Safe and Healthy Housing in Langley Park, MD was written by Dr. Lung Amam; Brittany Wong and Molly Carpenter, graduate students in UMD’s Urban Studies and Planning Program; Alonzo Washington, senior manager of housing and community development at CASA; and Julio Murillo-Khadjibaeva, government and strategic relations specialist in housing and community development at CASA. It was funded by a grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Read the full report here.
-By Maggie Haslam