Tenants’ Rights Bill Gets Through Montgomery Co. Delegation

Del. Jheanelle Wilkins is chief sponsor of a tenants' rights bill that advanced in the Montgomery County House delegation on Friday. Campaign photo

The Montgomery County House delegation OK’d a housing security bill on Friday morning, marking a legislative milestone for tenant rights, advocates said.

The delegation threw its support – by a vote of 17-6 – behind a measure form Del. Jheanelle Wilkins (D) that would require landlords to give a reason for refusing to renew a tenant’s lease.

Wilkins has worked on the bill for the last two years, but it previously failed to gain traction within the county delegation.

Over the last interim, Wilkins convened workgroups to address the issue of tenants’ rights and finesse the bill. The effort was buoyed by a Montgomery County Office of Legislative Oversight report on evictions in the county, and the proposed legislation was supported by the Montgomery County Council and the new county executive, Marc B. Elrich (D).

“This has truly been a piece of legislation where, from Montgomery County government to legislators to tenants, voices have been heard. And I think this bill is really a reflection of that work,” Wilkins said. “I’m just really proud that this has been such an inclusive process.”

The bill, which would apply only to Montgomery County but requires a change in state law, outlines reasons a lease can be terminated, including:

  • Tenant is delinquent in rent payments;
  • Tenant engages in criminal activity on the property;
  • Tenant causes substantial damage to the unit; and/or
  • Owner seeks to permanently remove the unit from the rental market, or seeks to use the unit for the lodging or care of an immediate family member.

Passage of the bill by a majority of the county delegation represents the farthest such a measure has gotten in the General Assembly, said Matt Losak, executive director of the Montgomery County Renters Alliance.

“It’s about time,” he said.

Creation of a just-cause, or good cause, rental law for the county was a key recommendation in a 2010 report from the Renters Alliance, which has advocated for bills in the past.

Losak said the law will allow tenants to feel more comfortable coming forward about sub-standard living conditions.

“Tenant after tenant have approached me saying how much this bill would help ensure that they would be more comfortable speaking up,” Wilkins said. “They didn’t want to speak up about things that were happening because they didn’t want to be put out.”

But opponents of the law have argued that it puts too much of a burden on landlords, restricting their property rights.

Del. Kathleen M. Dumais (D) said she could not vote for something that would so dramatically “change the rules of contract law” by restricting a landlord’s decision not to renew a lease.

Also voting against the legislation was Del. Kumar P. Barve (D), who chairs the Environment and Transportation Committee that will hold a hearing on the bill. A hearing date has not yet been set.

Wilkins acknowledged that “time is getting short” for the measure to move further this legislation session, but she still considers the delegation vote a win.

“Just-cause has been introduced numerous times before by people way before me. And for it to have this many members of our delegation to pass it, I consider that a huge win,” she said.

Just-cause rental laws exist in just a handful of places across the country, including statewide in New Hampshire and New Jersey, and in cities like Washington D.C., New York and San Francisco.

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Danielle E. Gaines
Danielle Gaines most recently worked for Bethesda Beat covering Montgomery County. Previously, she spent six years at The Frederick News-Post as the paper’s principal government and politics reporter for half that time, covering courts and legal affairs before that. She also reported for the now-defunct The Gazette of Politics and Business in Maryland and previously worked as a county government and education reporter at the Merced Sun-Star in California’s Central Valley.

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