UPPER MARLBORO – The Prince George’s County Council is looking to tackle one of the region’s most pressing issues by expanding the net of accountability. Councilwoman Deni Taveras introduced CB 59-2016 as part of a legislation package designed to improve quality of life in the county. The bill would expand current law to hold landlords, […]
UPPER MARLBORO – The Prince George’s County Council is looking to tackle one of the region’s most pressing issues by expanding the net of accountability.
Councilwoman Deni Taveras introduced CB 59-2016 as part of a legislation package designed to improve quality of life in the county. The bill would expand current law to hold landlords, apartment managers and property owners liable for any illegal drug, prostitution or human trafficking activity undertaken by their tenants in a rented unit if the landlord knows about the crimes. It also provides for procedures for notifying the property owners about complaints the county receives regarding those activities and creates a voluntary human trafficking training program for apartment managers.
The measure was discussed at a Transportation, Housing and Environment Committee meeting Sept. 29, and although all members of the committee recognized the issue is an important one, they raised questions about the current proposal. Taveras decided to allow the bill to remain in committee to work through those concerns before returning it to the full council.
“I’m open to conversation. I’m open to getting the right mix of people. But I’m just saying that we can’t be afraid to tackle this problem, because it is entrenched,” Taveras said. “I think this bill does a lot to hold everybody along the chain accountable and this is just one more tool in our toolbox in order to be able to work towards getting these people gone.”
Taveras said she and her staff have personally gone out to neighborhoods where they know drug and prostitution activity is taking place, and said people are afraid to report what is happening. That is why she incorporated County Click 311- the system residents can use to bring concerns to the attention of government staff- into the process, which allows anonymous calls. The reports would be sent to the Department of Permitting, Inspections and Enforcement (DPIE) to notify the property owner.DPIE staff said they do not license all rental units in the county. They, and other council members, also expressed concerns about the safety of their inspectors who are following up on the claims.
Council Chair Derrick Davis, a committee member, said, “Every one of these situations are dangerous situations that we talked about, and I commend you and your staff for putting themselves in harm’s way. But as legislators, it’s our responsibility to make sure that we send the right people into harm’s way at the right time. That’s why we have a police force, that’s why we have a sheriff’s office. That’s not why we have the inspectors.”
Taveras clarified that inspectors would not be asked to go into dangerous situations, merely send along information to property owners.
“All I’m asking for is for DPIE, once they get the complaint, referral from 311, for them to communicate to property owners. That’s all,” she said. “The property owners just need to know that this activity is taking place.”
A group representing some of those property owners had their own questions about the bill. Ron Wineholt, a vice president of government affairs at the Apartment and Office Building Association of Metropolitan Washington, said although owners are committed to keeping illegal activities off their properties, state and federal law already carry stiff penalties for drug and prostitution crimes. He questioned whether the bill would be redundant.
“State and federal law carries much heavier sanctions, and I’ve cited some state law provisions- so some of these are felonies, serious jail time,” Wineholt said. “Our first question would be why would the state’s attorney’s office staff use a small stick when a big club is state law?”
Renee Battle-Brooks, a prosecutor with the state’s attorney’s office, said they welcome any new mechanism for going after offenders.
“There are many models of human trafficking-many business models,” she said. Taveras’s bill addresses one already found in some pockets around the county. “Sometimes this stick is the more effective stick.”
And Felicia Henry from the Prince George’s County Human Trafficking Task Force said the bill expands on state law to include the landlords. She said the crime has changed over the years and enforcement should, too.
“If we’re serious about ensuring that businesses in Prince George’s County do not participate in these activities, we also have to move with the times and show that our laws meet the concerns of what the reality is,” Henry said. “I think that Prince George’s County has been leading in the region in combatting this issue and so I think that we should continue to do so.”