By Joe Murchison
Laurel’s city government is exploring ways to control apartment rent hikes as the escalating cost of housing has brought together a coalition of local activist groups calling for anti-rent gouging legislation.
Among possible measures the city is considering is a cap on the amount that landlords can raise rents annually. The cap would potentially be pegged to the federal government’s Consumer Price Index, which is the measure used to calculate retail inflation.
The newly formed Laurel Housing Justice Coalition supports such legislation. CASA of Maryland, Laurel Advocacy and Referral Services (LARS), the NAACP, PG Change Makers and the Poor People’s Campaign are all members of the coalition, which is currently collecting signatures on a petition in support of the legislation. (To see and sign the petition, go to wearecasa.org/anti-rent-gouging-laurel-md)
The mayor and city council will discuss possible measures at a work session on Sept. 21. The session will take place at 6 p.m. at the Laurel Municipal Center, 8103 Sandy Spring Road.
Mayor Craig Moe said the rise in apartment rents “is not a new issue. We’ve been working on it for years.” He cited, for example, the workforce housing measure the city instituted almost a decade ago that requires developments of more than 50 rental units to include affordably priced units. Eighty such units have been established under the measure, but that is out of a total of almost 6,000 rental homes in the city.
CASA of Maryland, an immigrant rights group, has drawn the city government’s attention anew to the plight of low- and moderate-income renters.
CASA organizer Jorge Benitez-Perez said an elderly resident of a 10-unit apartment building at 332 11th Street contacted CASA last winter to report that the building had been purchased by a landlord who was raising monthly rents from $865 to $1,600. He and other residents were mostly fixed-income seniors, and some had lived there for decades.
CASA, backed by Laurel Councilmembers Carl DeWalt (Ward 1) and Martin Mitchell (At Large) and a representative of Prince George’s County Councilmember Tom Dernoga (District 1), held discussions with the landlord, Cameron Manesh, who agreed to lower the new monthly rate to $1,350. Moe arranged a grant to CASA with funding from the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 that would cover approximately 25% of that rate for a year. (Moe’s administration also furnished $250,000 in funding from the act to LARS for rent relief.)
Benitez-Perez said media coverage of the 11th Street issue resulted in calls from tenants of another apartment complex, Westgate of Laurel, on Route 198. Benitez-Perez reported that callers complained that a new owner, Schweb Partners, had increased rents by hundreds of dollars and was ignoring maintenance issues.
CASA organizers, failing to get much response from Schweb Partners, helped tenants of 40 units to hold a rally outside the apartment office in May, and then to launch a rent strike in July, Benitez-Perez said.
He said Schweb broke the strike by threatening to take the strikers to court, but has given tenants small reductions in their rent and has improved maintenance. He said CASA and a Schweb representative were still negotiating over a parking fee of $10 per vehicle per month, and a monthly water fee of $45.
Westgate of Laurel is just outside city limits, and city officials were not involved in those negotiations.
A Schweb employee at the Westgate rental office said she was not authorized to comment on these issues. Emails from the writer to a Schweb regional manager were not responded to by press time.
Tipped off by Councilmembers DeWalt and Mitchell, CASA also investigated rent increases at Patuxent Place, in the 600 block of Main Street. Manesh recently acquired these units, also, and he again agreed to reduce the increases, Benitez-Perez said. The two city councilmembers and representatives from Dernoga’s office, along with state Del. Mary Lehman, were involved in those negotiations.
Manesh, a Potomac-based commercial real estate broker and investor as well as owner of Cameron’s Seafood Restaurant, in Laurel, said he believed the settlements were positive. “We were able to help every tenant in every situation. I’m very proud of that.”
But he said he opposed a city rent-hike cap. He noted that he had invested $10 million in purchasing and improving four Laurel apartment complexes in the past two years (the others being apartments at Sixth and Main streets and on Montgomery Street, opposite Laurel Elementary School). “I was looking for an area to revitalize,” he said. “You want guys like me in Laurel.”
“There is a severe undersupply of affordable housing and elderly housing,” Manesh acknowledged. He said he would like to be involved in developing more affordable rental units in Laurel, providing that the city government authorizes appropriate zoning or other incentives. “I want people to have housing if they can’t afford $1,800 or $2,000,” he said.
After the Patuxent Place resolution, “more tenants in Laurel began to reach out about rent increases and lack of maintenance,” Benitez-Perez said. “We saw this was an issue we didn’t have the capacity to handle — to negotiate with every landlord.” So CASA reached out to LARS and the other organizations.
Mitchell said that he and DeWalt will propose that the city council adopt a law that establishes a rental registry, that would require landlords to pay a small annual fee and report information on their holdings, including any rent increases and changes in ownership. They also plan to propose a cap on annual rent hikes that would be tied to the Consumer Price Index, with a provision allowing landlords to apply for higher increases to cover improvements or other specific considerations.
Moe said his staff has prepared a number of measures for consideration, including possible expansion of the workforce housing law and a possible inflation-adjusted rent cap. But he cautioned that any such legislation is complicated, and would require careful review. “The public should be able to chime in, tenants as well as landlords,” he said.