A Shirt and Suit

Dear Reader,

Meanwhile, back at the city council chambers . . .

Yes, while we have been wrapped up in the primary election brawl, the city has been quietly tending to business – though often without the presence of councilmember Marc Elrich who was busy winning his bid for county council at-large representative.

After taking August off, the council resumed meetings Tuesday, Sept. 5. Councilmember Elrich missed that meeting and the next one on Election Eve, understandably. However, he made a triumphant return entrance last Monday night (Sept. 18) during the Council Comment period, just as councilmember Joy Austin-Lane was congratulating him and saying “[I] wish that he was here so he could take a bow.”
The rest of the council congratulated him and exulted in the five other election victories for Takoma Parkians. Mayor Kathy Porter, not quite rubbing her palms together, speculated that the city might benefit from these victories.

The infamous election-day voting machine debacle was mentioned by Terry Seamens. He declared it a “serious situation” and cited worrisome studies that show disturbing problems with electronic voting systems. He proposed that the city form a committee to study the issue. Perhaps his attire, a bright red shirt and American-flag tie, refered to this issue, the flag symbolizing the country, the red shirt representing a state of emergency. Gilbert proposes the city form a committee to give fashion advice to certain councilmembers.

To pick on councilmember Seamens some more, the other councilmembers tattled on him at the Sept. 11th meeting. You thought he was taking notes during council meetings, dear Reader? No, he doodles! He draws caricatures, they said. Gilbert wants to know if disclosure of these drawings is required under the state Open Meetings Act.

Since council resumed after summer recess, it has largely focused on the mundane sort of business that if he weren’t writing a blog about the council would normally send Gilbert stalking from the room making a face like a gargoyle. For instance, a number of citizens have been publicly interviewed during the last three meetings prior to their appointment or reappointment to various city committees.

These interviews consist of everyone involved stating information about the committee and the interviewee that they and anyone who cares about it already know. Each council member takes a turn lavishing praise on the committee and the interviewee, always telling him or her that the city is lucky to have someone of such expertise willing to volunteer. The interviewee, deluded into thinking “someone of such expertise” means more than “someone who is breathing,” goes on at length about him or herself, the committee, and what she or he hopes to accomplish, as we observers are saying “get ON with it, get ON with it, get ON with it, . . . ”

Aside from that, there have been a few new developments on hot-button issues, dear reader:

WMATA development. WMATA is holding a meeting October 11th on its plans to relocate bus and parking at the Takoma Metro station. The council, particularly Joy Austin-Lane, who has been dogging this issue, wants the public to know about this and attend. She pushed to get the city to send postcards or some other form of announcement to nearby DC residents to get them to the meeting as well.

Double taxation/tax-rebate. The Mayor giddily* announced that she recently made what she felt was significant progress convincing the Maryland Municipal League to support Takoma Park and other municipalities who don’t get a fair tax-rebate.

Rent Stabilization. A resident came forward at last Monday’s citizen comment period to complain about a letter she and other tenants of the Park Ritchie apartments had recently received from their landlord, the Southern Management corporation. Southern Management claims to be the “largest privately owned residential property management company in the Mid-Atlantic region.” The letter announced a stiff rent increase.

Under the city’s rent stabilization laws, landlords can apply for and receive a rent control “hardship” waiver. The letter said the landlord, the Southern Management Corporation, had received such a waiver and that there would be a 38% rent increase over 3 years. The maximum increase allowed is 15% a year.

The tenant complained that the letter only gave until the next Friday to make a written response.

This and other aspects of the rent-increase letter disturbed the council. The mayor said it sounded as though it did not comply with proscribed timeframes. She and the council were unaware that Southern Management had asked for and received a hardship waiver.

Terry Seamens speculated that this had to do with a public exchange between himself and a Southern Management lawyer a few months ago. That May 1 exchange during the council’s citizen comment period was reported in granolapark’s Rent Instability.

“The razor-sharp lawyer for Southern Management Corporation . . . threw out an ultimatum – saying the corporation will take one of three actions: convert the building to condos, vacate and close the building, or sue the city for 20 million dollars, claiming the rent control laws violate the US constitution and the Maryland bill of rights. He dismissed the rent stabilization revisions so far discussed, sniffing “none of this helps us.

“Before the lawyer slithered away Councilmember Seamens took a little wind out of his sails, asking if it were true that Southern Management Corporation have never asked for relief via the processes provided by the law. The lawyer huffed that such an effort would have been “futile.”

“Seamens replied that he found it “interesting” that rather than try, the company decided it would be insufficient.”

Looking back on this exchange, Seamens said he had in essence told the lawyer “go ahead and sue,” anticipating that Southern Management would lose such a case since they had not bothered to apply for a hardship waiver. Seamens speculated that this latest action “is due to that” and that it is the real estate management corporation’s next step toward a law suit.

Councilmember Marc Elrich has long asserted that rent control has already been before the Supreme Court and been found to be constitutional and the city has nothing to fear from the courts. That may be true, but Gilbert worries that a deep-pocketed corporation such as Southern Management might nevertheless file a suit in hopes that the legal costs would force the city to settle.

Also on the rental housing front, the council looked at staff recommendations to change the rental housing licensing program. Sara Anne Daines, Housing and Community Development Director reported that the current system creates obnoxious bureaucratic hurdles for landlords. Her description of some of these left Gilbert feeling sympathetic towards landlords, so you know, dear Reader, they must be pretty awful. The list of inspections required before a license is issued is so long it makes one want to move to the farthest frontier where a man is his own law and clipboards are shot dead on sight.

Daines proposes changing the process and the types of licenses. Currently the three types are: six-month, annual, and biennial licenses. The differing lengths of time act as incentive. The fewer violations inspectors find, the longer-term the license is.
The proposed license categories would be identified by type of rental property, though each type would still be issued for a different length of time. Single Family (Accessory Apartment) – 2 year license, Multi- Family – 1 year license, and Temporary – Properties, those under renovation.

The recommendations also call for a streamlining and reduction of the licensing requirements, elimination of fees for additional inspections, and the issuance of a license before completion of a property inspection.

The council was concerned that the proposed system eliminates the current system’s incentive to pass inspections – the issuance of a longer-term license. Daines said that the staff had discussed this aspect, but when they looked at the data that saw that that 2/3 of the two-year licenses were already held by landlords of accessory apartments. Since they would come under the proposed category of Single Family (2-year) licenses, it seemed to the staff that incentive was not necessary. Still the council seemed reluctant to eliminate the incentive aspect of the current system.

It was noted during this discussion that a number of condominium units are being rented out by their owners without a rental license. The mayor said there needs to be an “outreach” to let them know they are violating the city code.
So, dear Reader, if you are a condo landlord – your touchy-feely city government wants to give you a big hug.

– Gilbert

*”Giddily” in the Mayor’s case means “barely unrestrained.”.

About the Author

Gilbert is the pseudonym of a hard-bitten, hard-drinking, long-time Takoma Park resident who maintains the granolapark blog. Gilbert and William L. Brown — Granola Park's mild-mannered chief of staff, researcher, and drink pourer — have never been seen in the same place at the same time.