Baltimore Rent Court Privileges Landlords, Evicts Tenants

| Educate!

Above photo: From the Baltimore Sun.

Baltimore, MD – On December 2, I was alerted about this new report, “Justice Diverted: How Renters are Processed in the Baltimore City Rent Court,” to be published by the Public Justice Center in partnership with the Right to Housing Alliance and the University of Baltimore on December 6. Little did I expect that the night before the report became public, a Sunday, I would have a personal experience with the unjust eviction system in Baltimore.

A friend called me at 5 in the evening in distress because a group of formerly homeless youth that had been placed in a house was being threatened with eviction. The seven youth ages 19 to 23 were visited by police who took all of their belongings and would have put them out on the street then and there if the friend, a homeless advocate, and a local pastor hadn’t been present. The pastor, Richard ‘Rico’ White who is also running for city council in that district as a Green, read the police documents and found that the process they were using went against their own stated rules. As a result, and to their credit, the police officers left to consult with their legal department and the youth were able to stay in the home, although without clothing, blankets, etc. I was called, as were others, to bring them basic necessities.

According to “Justice Diverted,” this scenario is repeated in Baltimore 7,000 times a year or 19 times a day, ranking second only to Detroit, MI, and is an example of a situation that is occurring throughout the United States. The report finds that the almost 80% of renters who are facing eviction have valid reasons to fight that eviction, but they do not understand their legal rights or have access to legal counsel. It also finds striking racial and gender disparities; 94% of renters facing eviction are black and 79% are women.

While most landlords in Baltimore are represented by an attorney, the vast majority of renters are not, and almost 75% of renters surveyed for the report didn’t know that serious housing defects like toxic mold that are rampant in many cities give renters a legal defense to fight an eviction. Indeed, the stories in the report show how the outcome of an eviction case depends less on the merits of the case than on whether renters can afford legal assistance and understand their rights. As a recommended policy solution, the report argues that expanding access to legal assistance for renters in eviction proceedings can level the playing field between renters and landlords and curb the growing crisis of wrongful evictions.

Read the full report here: Justice Diverted

Here is the Executive Summary:

Every year in Baltimore City, 6,000 to 7,000 renter households are judicially evicted for not paying the rent. These evictions result from a court system – known colloquially as “the Rent Court” – that is overwhelmed by landlord litigation, to the tune of 150,000 rent cases annually. The scale of this enduring crisis sets Baltimore apart from most rental housing markets in the nation. In fact, among metro areas studied in the 2013 American Housing Survey, Baltimore ranked second only to Detroit, Michigan, in the percentage of renters experiencing the threat of rent eviction.1

Many of these struggling renters feel that the public has tuned out their stories or flipped those stories against them. They face complex legal challenges on their own, without an attorney or even legal information to know their rights. At the same time, city leaders show little interest in understanding the cause of these evictions and their effects on community, family, employment, health, and education. There is a prevailing sense that rent evictions on this scale, year after year, just happen, as a logical consequence of poverty.

This report tells a different story.

From July 2014 through July 2015, the Public Justice Center partnered with the Right to Housing Alliance to study the experiences and outcomes of renters who appeared at Rent Court to defend against rent eviction cases. This report is based on a survey of nearly 300 Rent Court renter-defendants, extended interviews, reviews of court records and data from Baltimore Housing and the Maryland Department of the Environment, and the Public Justice Center’s experience in defending tenants in rent cases.

Our study shows that the court system prioritizes efficiencies which privilege the landlord’s bottom line, and as a result, it decidedly ignores two predominating realities of poor renters and their housing.

First, renters lack access to timely legal advice and have insufficient knowledge to navigate the process.

Once inside the Rent Court, renters operate from undeniable knowledge deficits – 50 percent of surveyed renter-defendants knew virtually nothing about how to defend their cases. Worse, they encounter systemic obstacles that minimize their voices and participation. While most landlords are represented by an attorney or debt management agent, renters typically appear at court alone, so that the cards are stacked against them. Then, institutionalized customs of the court steer renters away from defending themselves, instead pushing them into agreements that have no effect on the considerable problems renters face at home – namely, overspending on insecure, unsafe, unhealthy housing.

Second, renters are poor, have few rental options other than Baltimore’s crumbling housing stock, and look to the court to enforce housing standards.

Our data show that Rent Court defendants are among the most vulnerable people in the city. Most are Black women, living on $2,000 or less per month, without public housing assistance. To lower their housing costs, they resort to living in poorly maintained units. Shockingly, our study reveals that nearly 80 percent of surveyed renters were living amidst serious housing defects at the time they appeared at Rent Court. Over 70 percent of that group had notified the landlord about those defects. Startling, too, is that our study shows about half of landlords submitted invalid registration and licensing credentials to the court in order to get their law suit docketed. Worse, four of five landlords provided the court information about their mandatory lead risk reduction compliance that was incorrect, outdated, or otherwise unsupported by data from the state regulatory agency.

Even though these factors would form a legal defense for non-payment of rent, not even a third of respondents with a defense ended up contesting their cases before a judge. And even when they tried, in half of cases, judges failed to recognize or permit the renters’ habitability-based defenses.

This report first answers the questions of who comes to Rent Court to defend themselves, and what are the circumstances in their lives, beyond the four corners of the landlord’s rent complaint? Next, we present critical new information about tenants’ pre-trial knowledge of their rights and defenses to eviction. In Part II, we detail how current law welcomes frequent, repetitive litigation that overwhelms all aspects of fairness in the Rent Court. Part III details the systemic roadblocks that renters face in the legal system. The report shows how renters, many of whom have legitimate defenses to nonpayment of rent, are diverted away from raising their defensive claims or simply are not fully heard when they stand before a judge. In Part IV, we turn to what many consider the more effective forum for renters to remedy substandard housing conditions: the affirmative rent escrow process. From new research conducted by the University of Baltimore, we present the significant barriers to justice that renters faced in 59 case studies of rent escrow cases.

Finally, our report concludes with five major recommendations for reforming the Rent Court system and protecting the rights of some of Baltimore’s most vulnerable residents:

1. Cut Rent Court dockets in half and strengthen overall fairness of the process by requiring a prefiling notice and waiting period that would ensure that renters receive documentation of the landlord’s claims, time to remedy the dispute before litigation begins, and time to prepare a defense if necessary.

2. Level the playing field at court by expanding legal help for renters – increasing renters’ access to legal information, assistance at court, and legal representation. This report demonstrates the dire need for expanding access to legal assistance for renters, as their fate in housing court depends less on the merits of the case and more on whether renters know how to navigate the court system and the law. For Rent Court defendants, who are among the poorest residents of Baltimore, expanding access to free civil legal services would help level the playing field and vi reduce the number of renters who are wrongfully evicted because they did not understand their rights.

3. Demand that landlords and agents document their rent claims, as well as their alleged compliance with licensing and lead-risk legal requirements, and hold them accountable through a consistent application of existing legal standards and tenant protections.

4. Expand landlord licensing requirements that ensure annual health and safety inspections to all rental housing in Baltimore – not just multi-family dwellings and rooming houses.

5. Fund eviction prevention programs to meet the scale of the eviction crisis. Baltimore’s rent eviction crisis has serious ramifications for the human right to housing in our city. At the core of this right, recognized in more than one hundred national constitutions throughout the world and by the United States through its adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,2 lies the notion of security of tenure: for all persons, the government must ensure adequate legal remedies to any attempted deprivation of housing, and moreover that no household is evicted without other shelter in place.3 Baltimore City Rent Court operates from an opposite concept. The data in this report illustrate that this broken system puts long-standing tenant protections and basic housing standards second to landlords’ bottom line. Without intervention, it will only continue to function as a housed-to-homeless pipeline, a core disruptor of Baltimore’s efforts to foster community, family health, childhood education, and neighborhood stabilization.

End note:

1 See table of American Housing Survey 2013 data on reported notice of eviction due to non-payment of rent on p. 58.