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Baltimore Renters United campaign calls for changes to Sheriff’s eviction practices, cuts Sheriff’s budget, and urges funding for right to counsel

August 24, 2022

Tenants deserve dignity, justice, and respect. Yet the Baltimore City Sheriff’s Office makes the already-violent eviction process even more traumatic by refusing to tell tenants when their evictions are happening. The Office frequently posts eviction notices in mailrooms or outside of apartment complexes instead of on tenants’ doors as required by law. Nor will they provide the information if a tenant calls the Sheriff’s Office. Sheriff’s deputies proceed with evictions without checking if the property is licensed and sometimes even when the tenant has paid to stay in the home. Despite promises from deputies at a January City Council hearing, the Sheriff’s Office has made no changes to their practices. During budget hearings for the Sheriff’s Office this June, the Public Justice Center joined fellow members of Baltimore Renters United (BRU) in launching a campaign to stop these illegal practices, cut the Sheriff’s Office budget, and reallocate the funds to support the City’s right to counsel in evictions program.

During three budget hearings, Baltimore City Council members questioned Sheriff John Anderson and his deputies about the illegal eviction practices described above (Sheriff Anderson did not show up for the first two hearings). Council members pointed out that the practice of posting eviction notices in common areas violates a Maryland Attorney General determination that the notices must be placed on tenants’ own doors. The Sheriff’s Office was dismissive of the Attorney General opinion and claimed that barriers like locked external doors and broken elevators keep them from posting notices on tenants’ doors, an assertion that rings hollow given that they have no trouble getting into apartment complexes when carrying out an eviction. The Sheriff’s Office also stated that they do not share information about evictions over the phone because of privacy concerns, even though asking a few questions to verify a tenant’s identity seems like it should be possible. And despite a City law prohibiting unlicensed landlords from using the eviction process, the Sheriff’s Office admitted that it only looks into whether a property is licensed if a tenant brings it up (which is unlikely, since tenants often don’t know if a property is licensed).

Throughout June, BRU drew attention to the Sheriff’s Office’s unconstitutional practices and called for the City Council to respond by redirecting money from the Sheriff’s budget to support a right to counsel in evictions. BRU kept up the pressure by live-tweeting the hearings (#StiffTheSheriff) and giving interviews with the press. On June 23, the City Council voted to cut $500,000 from the Sheriff’s budget. Council members have said they have a promise from Mayor Brandon Scott to reallocate that money to fund Baltimore’s Right to Counsel program, which will guarantee tenants’ right to an attorney in eviction cases. In particular, the tenant outreach and community education component of the program does not yet have funding, and the $500,000 could help ensure that tenants know they have a right to a lawyer and can get connected to legal services to prevent eviction. BRU sent a letter to Mayor Scott on July 15 calling on him to follow through on his promise and release the funds to the Right to Counsel program.
BRU is also continuing to urge the Sheriff’s Office to make the following reforms:

We are encouraged that Baltimore’s next Sheriff, Sam Cogen, has said he would “humanize” evictions and expressed support for many of BRU’s demands. He has suggested creating a checklist of questions that deputies must answer before carrying out an eviction, including verifying that a property is licensed. He also wants to computerize eviction warrants, provide information about evictions online, and provide resources to tenants facing eviction. We hope that he will provide eviction information over the phone for people who do not have internet access, create a way to confirm that tenants actually received their eviction notice, and mail resources to tenants before an eviction along with the Failure to Pay Rent complaint.

With eviction uprooting thousands of Baltimore families each year, the need to address harmful eviction practices is urgent. We will continue to hold both the current and incoming Sheriffs accountable for their actions and encourage Mayor Scott to keep his promise to use the $500,000 to help fund right to counsel.