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The rent is the rent

Tenants and advocates testify in Annapolis
February 19, 2019
“I pay my rent every month. My landlord sent me water bills monthly, and I was able to keep up.  But then last year in early July, my landlord suddenly sent me five months of water bills at the same time.”
In the House of Delegates Environment and Transportation Committee, Guan Small was testifying alongside Public Justice Center staff and allies in favor of HB 473, which would define rent as the fixed, periodic amount a tenant pays for their home. 
Why does a definition of rent matter in Mr. Small’s situation? Landlords often lump extra, unexpected fees into the rent and then try to use the speedy eviction process to collect. In his testimony, Mr. Small described how unexpected charges from his landlord made it hard to plan for his family’s expenses and stay current on the rent. On top of $450 in water bills, his landlord piled on other fees: a $100 court appearance fee, $250 to snake a toilet, and more. At the same time, the landlord refused to fix a leaky ceiling, a leaky wall, a broken sump pump, and a worsening mold problem. “All of these fees kept adding up,” Mr. Small said. “They also took my rent money and paid the water bills and said that I didn’t pay my rent.” 
When landlords use the eviction process to collect extra fees, tenants have very little time to find an attorney and prepare a defense. The PJC got Mr. Small’s landlord to waive some of the fees and set up a payment plan for him so he was able to avoid eviction, but many tenants aren’t so lucky. PJC attorney Zafar Shah testified that disputes over other charges should be handled in breach of lease actions or small claims actions, where tenants have a better opportunity to be heard.
The PJC has long sought to address the problem of collecting extra fees as rent. In 2016, we secured a Court of Appeals victory in Lockett v. Blue Ocean Bristol, a ruling that rent is the periodic amount a tenant pays for their home, but not any other payments that a tenant may owe the landlord. Since then, some Rent Court judges have adopted this definition and prohibited landlords from collecting additional fees through the eviction process. Other judges have continued to allow the practice. HB 473 would write into law what the Court of Appeals decision already states: that the rent is the rent and not everything else the landlord claims. We hope that Maryland legislators will recognize that tenants should not be kicked out of their homes because the courts did not allow them enough time to challenge extra landlord charges.   
You can listen to testimony on HB 473 here, including PJC client Guan Small at the 2:22:23 minute mark and PJC attorney Zafar Shah at 1:16:30.

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