The constant bass next door is so loud it makes the pots and pans rattle. The screaming couple across the street wakes you up every night. The meatheads down the block throw raucous house parties. These chronic annoyances are the sort that a new city “neighborhood nuisance” law is meant to address.
The ordinance, which took effect last week, allows the city—through its Environmental Control Board—to issue citations to those acting in a “disorderly manner that disturbs the public peace” as well as to landlords allowing such conduct to occur on their property. On first offense, the ticket is $500. Commit another offense within 12 months, and the ticket is $1,000. Owners of troublesome properties could face 60 days in jail, and, if citations aren’t paid, a tax lien.
Though the potential application of the legislation is broad, complaints about college house parties were a major consideration in enacting it. In the northern section of Councilmember Bill Henry’s (D) North Baltimore 4th District, an unusual convergence of factors has made the area a popular place for students. Baltimore County restricts the number of unrelated people living together in a house to two, leading some students from nearby Towson University to rent—and party—just over the city line. (The university logged 43 complaints about off-campus disorderly behavior last semester; 15 were from Baltimore City.) In addition, Loyola University has a community agreement with numerous neighborhoods surrounding it, barring students from renting any housing other than apartments. As a result, Loyola students looking to share a house often rent farther afield, in residential neighborhoods like Evesham Park and Lake Walker. Representatives from both Towson and Loyola say their students are subject to disciplinary proceedings for disruptive behavior, even if it occurs off-campus. But Henry says some of his constituents have said the house parties in his district are so disruptive that some residents have put their homes on the market.
“We’ve had two years of constant conversations and negotiations with landlords [who rent to students],” he says. “And all they wanted to do was complain about how hard it was to be in their business.”
In Councilmember Mary Pat Clarke’s (D) 14th District, it’s Johns Hopkins University students who tend to elicit complaints. In 2005, the university appointed a student/community liaison and compliance officer to intervene with rowdy students on weekend nights. “It was something that the communities demanded that Hopkins do, and it has worked well,” Clarke says. “But it’s not a perfect solution.”
Mark Counselman, president of the Oakenshawe Improvement Association and a constituent of Clarke’s, agrees that the area continues to have problems with disruptive neighbors. Not all are Hopkins students: A garage on Brentwood Avenue often serves as an informal social club, with men drinking beer, carousing, and urinating in the alley, he says. On University Parkway a while back, a group of young people—not Hopkins students, he says—took to running from rooftop to rooftop during parties. But Counselman’s latest headache concerns his immediate neighbors on Oakenshaw Place. Students who hold frequent “unbelievably noisy” beer pong tournaments currently rent the place, he says. But Counselman is upset with the landlord, not the students. “If you’re going to allow beer pong tournaments in your rowhouse,” he says, “you’re going to have to invest in some sound-deadening, because kids are gonna be kids.” Counselman says he’s made midnight phone calls to the landlord—and the police—with no lasting results. Aaron Sorensen, the landlord, says he hadn’t realized the tenants were so disruptive that the police had been called. He also said he’d agreed to sit down with neighbors and discuss the problem, but the neighbors never contacted him after their initial request.
The city has sought to address “problem properties” in the past, most recently with a 2007 bill known as the padlock law. This legislation, which theoretically applies to both businesses and residences, gave the police commissioner the authority to shut a property down. It has only been used a handful of times since its passage, primarily on liquor stores and bars. It has never been used on a residence.
“I’ve been very frustrated about it,” Clarke says. “My sense is that the police commissioner, who’s key to it, felt it was more suitable for commercial properties.” (According to Baltimore Police Department spokesperson Anthony Guglielmi, the department has never felt it necessary to padlock a residence.)
At any rate, Councilman James Kraft (D-1st District) says, the new legislation will allow the city to crack down on repeat nuisance offenders without taking the drastic step of padlocking. Kraft, whose waterfront district contains some 40 percent of the city’s liquor licenses, hopes the new ordinance will help him address the steady stream of complaints he receives from neighbors, as well as those concerning unresponsive landlords north of Patterson Park. Disturbing the peace is a criminal misdemeanor under state law, but, Kraft says, that has not helped the city in the past any more than the padlock law. “Very frankly, the judges in the city of Baltimore are not going to convict somebody of a neighborhood nuisance,” he says. “This is less harsh. It really gives housing inspectors and police more tools to address this issue.”
The new ordinance initially met with some resistance, particularly from the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors and several other organizations that represent property owners. “We had some problems with it in the beginning,” Alfred Singer, president of the Maryland Property Owners Association, says. “Most of the time the landlord doesn’t live on the premises and the disturbance of the peace is caused by the tenant. Without notice to the landlord, there’s no opportunity to correct the behavior or to get a bad tenant out.” In response to such complaints, Kraft added an amendment to the bill that absolves landlords of punishment if they can prove they have begun eviction proceedings or other actions against offending tenants. Under the law, the landlord need not be notified of citations, but councilmembers say that, practically speaking, they will be.
“I think that unless you’re on a list of people we’ve had multiple complaints for and we’ve been trying to deal with you and you haven’t been dealing with us . . . I think those are the people who are gonna get hit,” Henry says.
Mark Counselman hopes the landlord who owns the house next door to him qualifies. “We have a code enforcement problem in this city and some of these slap-on-the-wrist things don’t get the attention of the landlord,” he says. “A $500 ticket would get him to pay attention.”