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Daily Record Article on PJC and the Rental Housing Coalition

The following article in this morning's Daily Record highlights the Rental Housing Coalition, organized by the Public Justice Center two years ago with funding from the Abell Foundation, and its efforts to pass fair landlord-tenant legislation in Maryland's General Assembly this year.  Ricardo Flores, PJC's Policy Director, is featured.
John Nethercut
Executive Director
Public Justice Center
500 E. Lexington Street
Baltimore, MD  21202
voice 410-625-9409 Ext. 238
fax    410-625-9423
email nethercutj@publicjustice.org
website  www.publicjustice.org

The tenants’ voice in Annapolis, times nine

June 30, 2006
Daily Record Legal Affairs Writer

Members of the Rental Housing Coalition pool forces to change state law

‘It’s really when somebody is missing from [the] equation that bad policies get passed,’ said Ricardo Flores, policy director for Rental Housing Coalition member Public Justice Center Inc. ‘And … often, tenants have been missing from that equation.’ The RHC is hoping two bills, referred for summer study, will increase protections against retaliatory eviction and create a statewide ban on putting an evicted tenant’s property out on the street.

For 40 years, Frizzell Green’s mom had a problem with water flooding the kitchen pantry of her rented Northwest Baltimore townhouse. Green, who’s lived there with her for the past dozen years, figured it was caused by an underground pipe.

But neither Green nor his 72-year-old mother ever had much success in getting their property management company to fix the problem, he said. When the company made signing a mold addendum a condition of renewing their lease in January, the two refused and subsequently received a notice to vacate the premises.

“It said that when we moved into the apartment there wasn’t mold and that it would be our responsibility if there was mold,” Green said of the addendum. “Why would we sign something that would make us responsible for any mold there?”

A home inspector confirmed mold was growing in the unit and after some “back and forth” in the Baltimore City rent court, with legal help from the Public Justice Center Inc., Green and his mother prevailed in getting repairs done and signing a new lease.

Coalition comes to life

While Green triumphed in his fight against the property manager, Ricardo Flores, public policy director at the Public Justice Center, believes many others don’t and actually lose services or get evicted for questioning their landlords.

Flores says there is an imbalance in the landlord-tenant relationship — much of it due to the weak representation tenants have had over the years as laws are crafted in Annapolis.

“It’s really when somebody is missing from [the] equation that bad policies get passed,” he said. “And I think it’s been the case, at least historically, that often tenants have been missing from that equation. So we have permanent laws on the books where tenants’ interests are not protected and not represented.”

In order to combat that perceived imbalance, a group of nine organizations decided to pool their resources, in conjunction with funding from The Abell Foundation, for a stronger lobbying effort. They formed the Rental Housing Coalition two years ago. Flores and Daniel Pontious, regional policy director for the Citizens Planning and Housing Association, have led the legislative effort thus far.

Other coalition members are the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), Baltimore Neighborhoods Inc., the Brooklyn and Curtis Bay Coalition, CASA of Maryland Inc., the Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning, the Maryland State Residents Council and Renters United for Maryland.

The group made its first moves in the General Assembly in the 2006 regular session by proposing two bills. One would broaden the right tenants have to claim retaliation by their landlords. Another would eliminate the practice of placing a tenant’s belongings on the sidewalk when they’ve been evicted.
Green was one of several tenants who testified for legislators on the coalition’s behalf.

Neither bill passed, but committees in both the House and Senate agreed to further study the proposals in the offseason. So far, nothing has been scheduled in the Senate and the House won’t hold hearings until the fall, according to committee staff.

“It was a very important year for tenant advocacy because it sort of crossed the threshold from defensive to affirmative work,” Flores said. “And … I think that the fact that we were able to succeed in getting the legislators to look at the issue over the interim is an indication of the influence and the quality of advocacy that the coalition was able to put together working as a group rather than just any one entity doing their piece. And I think that bodes very well for the future.”

Abell roots

Although many of the Rental Housing Coalition’s members have always thought that state laws were stacked against their tenant constituents, momentum to change those laws picked up after The Abell Foundation published a report in 2003 on the evictions process in Baltimore City.

That report, “A System in Collapse,” found renters in Baltimore are more likely to be evicted than those in cities such as Cleveland, Detroit, New York and Philadelphia. It gave poverty as the main reason tenants can’t pay rent on time. However, it also concluded the number of evictions is so high because landlords use the rent court as a collection agency of first resort.

In fiscal year 2005, for example, the court processed 141,010 landlord complaints. Of those, 59,902 warrants were issued and 7,864 tenants were actually evicted.

The foundation concluded that the entire process was a tragic waste of public funds from both the courts and city, which spends $540,000 annually to clean up eviction chattel from its sidewalks.

The report focused a great deal on perceived problems with the rent court, but the Rental Housing Coalition has so far opted to avoid that beast. Instead, it’s focusing its efforts on retaliation and eviction chattel.

The “stop retaliation” bill aims to consolidate what the coalition considers a confusing set of retaliation laws that set too high a standard for tenants to prove they’ve been victimized.

The proposed changes create a presumption that “adverse actions” by a landlord within one year of a protected activity are retaliatory, although the presumption can be rebutted in court. The bill also provides an unlimited timeframe for a tenant to be protected after receiving a judgment that a landlord retaliated against them. Current law only protects a tenant from further retaliation for six months after a judgment in their favor.

The “clean streets” bill requires landlords to store tenant belongings for one week after an eviction and then directly dispose of the unclaimed possessions at a dump if they aren’t recovered. It also compels the city to give advanced notice of a scheduled eviction.

The Rental Housing Coalition expects a change in this eviction law would have the greatest impact in Baltimore City, where the local government has three dedicated crews that clean up after roughly 32 evictions a day.

Major cities like New York and Philadelphia have done away with the practice of placing eviction chattel on public rights-of-way; closer to home, so has Baltimore County.

Realtors and community activists alike claim the practice hurts property values and perceptions of a neighborhood in addition to harming the tenants, who can’t make the rent because they are poor.

“It opens people up to vandalism,” said Ruth Ann Norton, executive director of the Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning. “Also, very low-income people have few items, but what they have on scale is important and costly to them. When those things get rained on and taken away, then they have to repurchase those things” and are set back financially.

Coalition members argue tenants would reclaim their possessions if given the opportunity. But property owners claim the added handling and storage costs would be passed on to tenants in higher rent — and often, what is left behind is just trash.

“Usually the people getting evicted have taken the best stuff out,” confirmed Baltimore City Department of Public Works spokesman Robert Murrow. “The rest gets put on the street, the next best stuff is picked over by people in the neighborhood and what’s left, we get and toss.”

The coalition plans to keep working on both of these initiatives through the 2007 session and may introduce others.

Flores declined to share the group’s multiyear strategy for amending the state’s landlord-tenant laws. However, beefing up tenant protections could make additional reforms easier to come by, he said. “Getting the retaliation bill passed … is important not only just as a legislative matter, but really as an organizing matter in terms of our ability to convince people that they need to advocate for themselves and that there’s a level of legal protection in so doing,” Flores said. This will be essential for any tenants who join the coalition and want to testify in Annapolis about their housing situation.

Balanced already?

For each tenant evicted or allegedly retaliated against, there is also a landlord with a story to tell. And landlords tend to think the General Assembly has already achieved a good balance with the laws in question.

“I look at the property as a partnership in a way,” said Tom Shaner, acting executive director of the Property Owners Association of Greater Baltimore. Landlords and tenants “both have rights and both have responsibilities.”

Laws already on the books are strong enough to protect tenants, so long as the tenants are aware of what their rights are and where to get help when it’s needed, he said. The bills proposed by the Rental Housing Coalition place too much of a burden on landlords to store and dispose of tenant property and too easily make them susceptible to retaliation charges.

“It’s a sad story for people who are out there,” he said. “We forget that there are other people in desperate need. But we can’t ask private enterprise to carry that bill. We have to figure out other solutions as a community.”

Jim Caffey, executive vice president of the Maryland Multi-Housing Association, also stressed the fact that a landlord-tenant relationship is a business relationship.

“You have to come back to the premise that this is an agreement,” he said. “This is a contract between two parties for an exchange. When you drape over this that it’s a home… then you wrap the whole agreement in an emotional bundle.”

Strength in numbers

The Rental Housing Coalition certainly has its work cut out for it taking on property owners, as well as convincing legislators — many of whom are landlords themselves, Flores said — that the laws need reform.

Regardless, members are confident that operating together they will have greater success than operating on their own.

“While the RHC certainly has its core interests and its core membership involved in tenant advocacy per se,” Flores said, “we have other elements within the coalition that make us stronger — other perspectives and other voices that come to the table with us to Annapolis, and that makes us more effective.”

Copyright 2006 © The Daily Record. All Rights Reserved.

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