Some Montgomery County Council members were frustrated on Tuesday after a last-minute objection delayed a planned vote on a high-profile tenants’ rights bill.
Aseem Nigam, director of the county’s Department of Housing and Community Affairs, emailed a memo to council members about an hour and a half before the final vote on a bill requiring landlords to provide air conditioning in certain rental housing.
The memo clarified that the executive administration supported the original bill, before it was significantly amended during three council committee hearings.
The earliest draft of the legislation, introduced by Council Member Tom Hucker in July, would require working air conditioning in all rental housing between May 1 and Sept. 30. But the amended bill exempted single-family homes and allowed tenants to opt out of the requirement.
Nigam said Tuesday that the department worried that tenants would be pressured to waive their rights to air conditioning. But all three members of the Planning, Housing, and Economic Development (PHED) Committee said the late communication disrupted the legislative process after months of deliberation.
In an interview after Tuesday’s council meeting, Council Member Andrew Friedson added that the committee continued to support the amendments in large part because of continued feedback from DHCA.
The department reviewed the particularly controversial amendment that would have allowed tenants to opt out of air conditioning if landlords stipulated they would charge more in rent for providing it. Council Member Will Jawando opposed the change, but ultimately voted with Friedson and PHED Chair Hans Riemer to send the amended bill back to the full council for a vote.
“Until this eleventh-hour memo, we were under the assumption that the executive branch approved this bill,” Friedson said. The late communication “completely upended” the council’s legislative process, which involves an unusual level of involvement from the executive branch, he added.
But County Executive Marc Elrich, who directed Nigam to send the memo, was more nonchalant about the communication. He said he was unaware that DHCA reviewed the opt-out amendment until Hucker — the sponsor of the bill — contacted his office last week with concerns over the amendment.
“If I had been aware of it, I would have said ‘no way,’” Elrich said in a phone interview after Tuesday’s meeting. “I think the concerns he raised were valid, and I wanted to make sure my office was supporting the right position on this.”
Tenant advocacy groups were equally opposed to the changes, which Matt Losak, executive director of the Montgomery County Renters Alliance, described as “poison amendments” in an interview after the meeting.
Excluding single-family rental homes was an arbitrary exception to an important bill, Losak said Tuesday. But he was more concerned by the tenant opt-out clause, which could encourage renters to waive important health protections to save money on rent. He also worried that landlords — rather than voluntarily installing air conditioners — would threaten to raise prices unless tenants agreed to the exception.
“This is a public health issue,” Losak added. “Would you allow tenants to ‘opt out’ of heat in the winter? We’re seeing unprecedented rising temperatures because of global warming, and this is an effort to treat air conditioning as a similar basic right.”
A final vote on the bill will be delayed at least a week while it goes back to the PHED Committee for another hearing. While Hucker supported other amendments to the legislation — including language that limited the air conditioning requirement to “habitable spaces” in a building or rental unit — he said the DHCA memo reflected clear problems with some of the major changes.
“DHCA is allowed to change their minds just like council members are allowed to change their minds,” Hucker said in a phone interview after the meeting. “I think the amendments would invite a lot of mischief from unscrupulous landlords.”
Nigam’s memo outlined possible concessions to property owners, including an appeals process to allow extra time for buildings not currently wired to support air conditioning systems. The county would also consider a low-interest loan program for landlords who can’t afford to meet the new requirements.