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A Student in Rent Court

By Rebecca Cerasoli
June 27, 2013
Photo of Rebecca CerasoliOn Friday, May 25, when Henry and Sharon Bell came to the District Courthouse, I got the chance to go with them. As a PJC intern and a high school student, it was an excellent opportunity to see both the Public Justice Center and rent court in action. But it was also an amazing experience to sit in on the proceedings and watch as the story of the Bells’ struggle with their landlord unfolded. I had never been to a rent court hearing, nor had I met the Bells or heard their story, so I had no idea what to expect when I stepped into the courthouse that afternoon.
Mr. and Ms. Bell’s journey to the courthouse was a long one. Their landlord had made no effort to fix any of the numerous problems with their home and threatened to evict them when they withheld rent in light of these problems. After attending several meetings of the Right to Housing Alliance (RTHA) in March, Mr. and Ms. Bell retained the Public Justice Center as counsel and filed an affirmative complaint seeking to establish a rent escrow account with the Court, to abate rent to $300, and to recover compensatory damages.   
So they came to court on an overcast and chilly Friday to state their case before a judge. While Mr. and Ms. Bell were officially represented by the Public Justice Center during the hearing, several of their neighbors, colleagues, and friends from the Right to Housing Alliance also came to provide moral support. 
Group photo of Right to Housing Alliance members and PJC staff and intern outside the District Court of MarylandThe RTHA had put out the call for community members to come to the hearing and show support for the Bells, and their call was answered in force. Nearly a dozen turned out, many in blue RTHA T-shirts. They also came prepared with packets of information about tenant rights to give people in the courthouse, including copies of a letter written by the Bells. 
Together we sat in on the hearing and listened as the health inspector read off a list of violations that seemed to go on forever. In total the inspector found 36 violations, 19 of which presented threats to health and safety. Most impressively, our whole group rose with Mr. and Ms. Bell when their names were called, and later left the courtroom all together when the hearing closed, apparently leaving a strong impression on the judge, who remarked, “Wow, all those people?” PJC tenant advocate Levern Blackmon said that, in his 17 years at PJC, he had never before seen so many people come to rent court to support a tenant. 
The results of the hearing were mixed. The landlord himself was noticeably absent, represented instead by an agent from Calhoun Properties LLC. After the health inspector had read the long list of violations which the landlord had failed to address, the judge decided to postpone further judgments for a month, to allow the landlord time to, as she stated, fix these violations before a second inspection. She did open a rent escrow account for the Bells and eliminated their April rent, a small victory for the weary tenants.  
The first thing that struck me about being in that courtroom was how remarkably fast such a critical decision went by. The entire hearing lasted only minutes, one of many to come before the presiding judge. But for the Bells, it was the culmination of weeks, months of worries, work, and waiting. I was struck by their bravery. In those five minutes I could see how much courage it had taken to pursue what they wanted, what they had a right to, from their landlord, even under threats of eviction. 
A week later I spent a day back in rent court, this time sitting in on the rent court morning dockets. I was surprised to find that the Bells’ experience was not unusual. Many of the cases called were settled in a heartbeat, most often because neither or only one of the parties had come. I was also surprised to find that judges throughout the courthouse strongly encouraged parties to settle, even postponing hearings for a few minutes so that tenants could speak to their landlord’s representatives out in the hall. 
It seemed very foreign to me that such important decisions could be made in the matter of minutes. But it served to enforce an impression I’ve gotten over the last four weeks working for the PJC. As I’ve become familiar with the work that the PJC does, I’ve learned about the numerous and widespread changes they’ve guided to fruition through reforms to the law and successful systemic advocacy. What I didn’t realize was how equally important the other side of their work is. 
For the PJC, helping individuals ensures that existing laws are being enforced. For those like the Bells, who chose to stand up for the rights they have by law, help and support from the PJC and its partners can be just as important as the systemic changes to the law because of the impact on their lives. And yet, these cases wouldn’t be arguable without the laws that the PJC and partners across the state have helped bring into being, revised, reformed, and improved. That balance is easy to lose sight of, and it’s times like these, five minutes of courage, that can serve as a reminder of how critical every piece of the process is in the lives of people like Henry and Sharon Bell.
For more information, see this article from the Right to Housing Alliance, the RTHA and PJC pages on Facebook, or a copy of the Bells’ letter.  

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