(May 15, 2015) Zoning, building, police, fire marshal – select all that apply.
The four city agencies involved in enforcing housing regulations held a seminar last week at the convention center for resort landlords, Realtors, student sponsors and anyone else who was wondering just exactly how the rules do or don’t apply to them.
“If you are having a problem, please reach out to the departments or to us,” said Councilman Wayne Hartman, himself a long-time rental landlord. “The purpose here is to be proactive and eliminate a bad situation now rather than over the summer.”
The consortium of city departments that address housing issues is known as PRESS (Property Review and Enforcement Strategies for Safe-housing). The group was formed last summer, amidst a litany of complaints that the city was not doing enough to address the growing trend of formerly long-term residential units being converted into shorter-term rentals, often in violation of minimum housing requirements.
“What we have found, with the economy the way it is, is that many people have started to use their property as rental property to pay for their investment,” said city Zoning Administrator Blaine Smith.
“It has disrupted neighborhoods, and there was an outcry that we do something to regain our level of enforcement and maintain some level of compatibility.”
After attending the seminar, here are Ocean City Today’s tips for navigating the multiple layers of oversight from City Hall, both for your own benefit and for that of your neighbors.
Know if you’re in an R-1 or MH area:
While the city’s zoning code doesn’t get too specific about how residential units are set up, it does specify a particular set of limitations for “single-family homes,” which are the only type of occupancy allowed in R-1 (single-family residential) or MH (mobile home) zoning districts.
The city’s definition of family is “an individual or two or more persons who are related by blood or marriage living together and occupying a single housekeeping unit with a single culinary facility, including caregivers employed and residing on the premises, or a group of not more than four persons living together by joint agreement and occupying a single housekeeping unit with single culinary facility on a cost sharing basis.”
This definition is not ironclad, Smith noted, since the legally upheld definition of “family” in the United States is forever changing due to what Smith cautiously termed “alternative lifestyles.”
Still, he said, a group of more than four vacationers who would not otherwise cohabitate cannot purport to be a “family” in order to skirt the zoning code and rent a property in an R-1 or MH district.
“It is a regulation and it is enforceable, but it’s a hard thing to enforce because people have an expectation of privacy,” Smith said. “I can’t go barging into someone’s home … for me to know who these people are is a different matter. If we have a police report where they’ve identified 12 different people, then we may be able to do something.”
Some attendees expressed dismay that, despite last year’s outcry, few Realtors and rental agents were putting notices on their listings that certain properties were subject to the R-1 or MH restrictions.
“We are going to be sending notices to all properties in the districts … so that they can’t claim ignorance, whatever real estate agent they’re using,” Smith said.
Notify the police of problems:
Like Smith, several officials emphasized that, as civilian administrators, they can only issue citations and fines based on what has already been observed. Most referrals for housing violations come to them from the Ocean City Police Department, via noise complaints, as overcrowded or illegal housing and excessive noise often go hand-in-hand.
“Astute officers will write up a referral for another city department,” said OCPD Sgt. Mark Paddack, who has helmed the department’s noise enforcement operations for the past seven seasons.
Excessive noise is defined as being over 65 decibels during the day, or 55 at night, measured 50 feet or more away from the offending property. Verified offenses are referred to the city’s Noise Board for correction.
“Our policy is to go to the complainant first, because 99 percent of the time they’re more than 50 feet away from the problem property,” Paddack said. “If we can hear AC/DC from a house 150 yards away, there’s a problem.”
Post your phone number:
Rental permits are required under the city’s noise ordinance for all non-hotel properties with seasonal tenants. Landlords are required to provide contact information, but for whatever reason this is often outdated or unavailable.
Thus, Paddack suggested landlords and rental agents post their cell phone number near their rental permit sticker, which is supposed to be displayed on the front door of the unit, or an adjacent window.
Depending on the situation, police may or may not be able to help landlords evict tenants who are causing violations. Under Maryland law, most rentals of a week or less are covered under so-called “innkeepers’ laws,” which allow immediate eviction for any kind of public nuisance. These laws are police-enforceable.
In cases where tenants have a long-term lease, however, eviction is a civil matter and can only occur after a court process between landlord and tenant.
“It’s a matter of if you have a ‘lodging agreement’ or a lease,” Paddack said. “If it’s more than a week, we’re probably not going to be able to throw them out. We’re just going to be there to keep the peace and the landlord and tenant are going to do what they need to do.”
Document your property:
Under the International Building Code, which Ocean City has adopted, housing capacity is measured in square footage. Units can hold one person per 40 square feet of bedroom space, although any room considered a bedroom must be at least 70 square feet.
“This is designed so that people aren’t turning every space into a bedroom,” said Chief Building Inspector Kevin Brown. “We see bunk beds in attics, closets … we’ve seen just about everything there is to see as far as unhealthy living conditions.”
One of the major issues from Brown’s side is that landlords may turn over a unit in a certain way, only to be called by the city after violations are created by tenants. This is of particular concern with the shortage of affordable housing for student workers.
“We do have a problem with what I would call subletting, where students will bring in additional students unknown to the landlord in order to make their rents cheaper,” Brown said.
The best way to address this is for landlords to have photo documentation available as to how the unit is intended to be used. Otherwise, there is no sure way to prevent the legal repercussions from coming back onto the property owner.
“That is something we deal with every summer,” said Capt. Josh Bunting with the city fire marshal’s office. “What I would encourage you to do is document the property as you handed it over.”
Further, the building code also requires a certain amount of space for living and dining, depending on occupancy. Rooming houses and dormitories do not require this, but such classifications come with additional standards for construction and fire safety, and it is illegal to make such a conversion without re-inspection by the building department and fire marshal.
Know the fire code:
Under the state fire code, any unit – be it a detached home, townhouse unit, or condo unit – is considered a single-family dwelling if it has attached kitchen and bathroom facilities. However, “single-family” means something different than it does under the city zoning code.
“You’re going to have zoning definitions, you’re going to have your building code, and then you’re going to have how we [the fire marshals] define how your property is being used,” said Deputy Joe Sexauer of the city fire marshal’s office.
Under fire code, any dwelling unit may contain up to five “outsiders” who are not part of the family unit. Determining this status is somewhat subjective, but the two major factors are separate leases or rental agreements, and locked or partitioned spaces. This indicates that the occupants are not “familiar” with each other and thus not part of the family occupancy.
If more than five outside roommates are present, the dwelling is considered a rooming house for fire purposes, Sexauer said. This necessitates a number of additional features – having only a single exit from the unit, for instance, is only acceptable for family dwellings. The required rating of walls separating rooms also changes for non-dwelling uses.
“The more people you want to put into a unit, the more restrictive the fire code becomes,” Sexauer said. “From our standpoint, it’s your responsibility to know what’s going on with your property.”