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Baltimore City renters call for fairness and integrity in eviction process

Bill offers changes to city Rent Court to ensure fair hearings and safe housing

Media Contacts:
Jessica Lewis, jessica@rthabaltimore.org
Zafar Shah, shahz@publicjustice.org

February 12, 2016

ANNAPOLIS, MD—The 7,000 Families Campaign, an umbrella of the Right to Housing Alliance, the Public Justice Center, Jews United For Justice, Baltimore Bloc, Chase House, and other supporters, announced the Fairness and Integrity for Baltimore City Renters bill today and testified at the Baltimore City Delegation’s hearing on the legislation. The bill is sponsored in the House by Delegate Sandy Rosenberg, Del. Nathaniel Oaks, and Del. Curt Anderson, and sponsored in the Senate by Senator Catherine Pugh.

“Baltimore City sees around 150,000 rent actions and 7,000 evictions every year. This is a problem driven not just by unaffordability, but in large part by our unfair eviction law,” Jessica Lewis of the Right to Housing Alliance (RTHA) said. “Without real reform, the current eviction process will continue to displace Baltimore families and destabilize communities.”

According to 2013 American Housing Survey data, Baltimore is second only to Detroit in the percentage of renters living under the threat of eviction. The proposed legislation aims to reform the docket of the city’s District Courts, often referred to as Rent Courts for their high volume of non-payment of rent cases.  

“Landlords abuse low barriers to entry to use rent court as a means to demand payment from vulnerable tenants, who often have valid defenses but are unable to contest these claims without a lawyer to represent them," Del. Rosenberg said. "House Bill 796 would free the courts from this deluge of invalid claims and ensure due process for both landlords and tenants.”

“The Fairness for Renters bill levels the playing field,” Public Justice Center representative Zafar Shah said. “Right now it’s far too easy for landlords to evict renters and far too difficult for renters to adequately defend themselves, even when they’re living with serious health and safety defects at home.”

The bill would require landlords to demonstrate compliance with all Maryland registration and inspection regulations when filing a claim, including lead risk certification. According to a study conducted in 2014 and 2015 by the Public Justice Center, the Right to Housing Alliance, and Johns Hopkins University, 79 percent of landlords were not compliant with the state lead law at the time of trial. Over 60 percent of those landlords still won judgments to evict their tenants.

Jews United for Justice Baltimore Director Molly Amster says the bill is a necessary step to ensuring transparency and accountability in a high-volume docket.

“We need this bill to bring balance to the Rent Court process so that renters can get receipts, account statements, documentation of rental licensing and lead law compliance—the basics that every renter should have when they are summoned to court,” Amster said. “The Fairness for Renters bill gives renters a fighting chance when they are facing loss of housing.”

The recent study also revealed that nearly 60 percent of surveyed renters were living amidst serious housing defects and had already reported the problems to their landlords by the time they appeared in Rent Court. Even though these factors would typically form a legal defense for non-payment of rent, only 8 percent of those defendants actually succeeded in raising the defense.

Fifty percent of renters surveyed at the court reportedly had no knowledge of their basic defenses to eviction, and none of them had legal representation. The bill aims to remedy this problem by creating a new fund for tenant legal assistance services available at courthouses.

“Renters are expected to play a game without knowing the rules,” Ms. Lewis noted. “Our lawmakers have the opportunity now to add crucial safeguards that will help to keep families in their homes and to stabilize our city neighborhoods.”


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