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All out for renters’ rights!

Tenants and advocates testify in Annapolis
March 9, 2018
Betty Watson stepped up to the podium. She was there to testify against SB 493, a bill that would allow landlords to label anything from water bills to repair costs as “added rent” in tenants' leases and then sue to evict them in the state’s fastest collections method: Rent Court. 
Addressing the panel of Senators, she shared her own experience to explain why the bill is bad deal for tenants. She described how her apartment’s management company refused to fix leaking pipes and months later decided to send her an exorbitant water bill for the leaks. The management company then applied her rent to the water bill and took her to Rent Court to evict her, claiming that she hadn’t paid the rent. With representation from a Public Justice Center lawyer, she fought back and settled the case. 
“We were blessed,” she said. But “I know that there are thousands of renters in my situation who do not have a lawyer. Even if they did get a lawyer and this bill passes, it would not do them any good because this bill is going to legalize the practice of trying to evict people over disputed water bills and other charges/fees as ‘rent.’ I urge you not to create more eviction. Please oppose this bill.”
Ms. Watson was one of several tenants and advocates who travelled to Annapolis on February 15 to testify before the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee on several bills related to Rent Court. For many tenants, it was their first time testifying. They were excited to participate in the democratic process and have an opportunity to be heard. 
The day began at lunch, when tenants and PJC staff and volunteers gathered to get ready to testify. Then everyone went over to the Senate building for the 1:00 pm hearing. Over the course of the afternoon and evening, the PJC and allies testified against a few landlord-friendly bills and in favor of bills that would help tenants get a fair shake in Rent Court: 
For bills that improve tenants’ rights
SB 520: Provides a minimum seven-days notice between summons and trial in Baltimore City, giving tenants time to find a lawyer, take off from work, and find childcare for the day of the trial. 
SB 524: Dismisses Rent Court actions when the landlord cannot show a valid certificate indicating that they are compliant with lead paint laws.
Against bills that harm tenants
SB 493: Allows evictions for unpaid repair costs, hidden fees, and utility charges, without adding any due process protections for tenants. SB 493 would make billing less transparent and unpredictable. The bill promotes misdirection of monthly rent payments to hidden and fluctuating non-rent fees that may not be accurate. This would leave renters constantly uncertain of what is due and what is paid.
SB 555 : Reduces the notice period and appeal period in breach of lease cases, stripping tenants of their due process rights and increasing evictions.
SB 468: Puts the burden on the tenant to request each and every water bill from the utility company instead of requiring the landlord to automatically deliver a timely copy of the water bill to the tenant.
Reflecting on the day, PJC paralegal Saskia Sanchez said that tenants and advocates play an important role in educating legislators about the potential impact of these bills on regular people. Advocacy days like this one give legislators “a touch of reality. They need to know what it’s like to live with poor housing conditions, to know what it’s like to be called to Rent Court. It’s important for legislators to understand the impact of their decisions.”
All these bills are still under consideration in the Senate. If you’re interested in learning more about the PJC’s work in the Maryland General Assembly, you can check out legislative testimony on our website.
Thank you to the many allies who testified with us on February 15: Maryland Legal Aid, Maryland Attorney General Consumer Protection Division, Maryland Access to Justice Commission, Green & Healthy Homes Initiative, Right to Housing Alliance, Communities United, Bristol House Tenants Association, Jews United for Justice - Baltimore, Maryland Consumer Rights Coalition, Santoni, Vocci & Ortega, LLC, Disability Rights Maryland, Chesapeake Physicians for Social Responsibility, Job Opportunities Taskforce, Pro Bono Resource Center, and Maryland Alliance for the Poor (MAP).

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