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Of Service: New film will help balance scales of justice in Baltimore City rent court

Of Service: New film will help balance scales of justice in Baltimore City rent court

Special to The Daily Record
March 2, 2009

One of the most disturbing statistics from a city full of disturbing statistics is this: More than 140,000 tenants — most of them poor and most of them black — are sued for eviction in the Baltimore City District Court every year.

But here’s another fact that is even scarier: Almost none of them have access to a lawyer during the process leading to eviction.

“For over 20 years, the Public Justice Center has represented clients in district court facing eviction,” said PJC Executive Director John Nethercut. “Out of the 140,000-plus nonpayment of rent cases filed, only a few have legal representation. Maryland Legal Aid is the major provider, along with the PJC, other legal services organizations and pro bono attorneys.”

In other words, the vast number of people facing the loss of their homes go to court on their own.

“The PJC is leading a nationwide effort to have a right to counsel in basic-needs cases recognized,” Nethercut said. “But the reality is with current legal services funding, fewer than 20 percent of low-income people are able to get legal advice.”

To help the vast number of people facing eviction without legal help, the PJC produced a new, 24-minute film to help educate tenants about the process and their rights. “Stand Up For Yourself in Baltimore City Rent Court” premieres Wednesday, March 11, at the Enoch Pratt Free Library at 6 p.m. The film showing will be followed by a panel discussion.

“We’ve been doing tenants’ rights trainings for years and realized that film media is an effective way to reach a wide range of people in rent court,” Nethercut explained. “We hope to play the film in rent court and to distribute it widely on YouTube, Web sites, the People’s Law Library and to various government agencies and nonprofits.”

The film was produced with the cooperation of the district court. “We’re especially grateful for the help of Administrative Judge Keith E. Mathews, who allowed us to film in the court and feature court personnel in the film,” Nethercut said.

The Megaphone Project, a nonprofit that specializes in making films for other nonprofits, produced the film. A total of $27,500 to cover production costs was donated by the 32nd Street Farmers Market Foundation, the Abell Foundation, the Baltimore Bar Foundation and the Maryland Legal Services Corp.

High demand

The film comes after several decades of efforts to reform the rent court, Baltimore’s busiest court docket. Since 2000, a rent court work group consisting of judges, clerks, sheriffs, landlords and tenants has met regularly and has resolved various court procedure and administrative issues, Nethercut said.

“But one reality that hasn’t changed is that legal service funding hasn’t gone up, while the demand has,” he pointed out. “Half the city’s residents are renters. The average tenant family is sued for eviction 1.2 times a year — a much higher rate than in New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland and other major cities.”

That’s because other states require that tenants be sent a notice before court to resolve the nonpayment dispute.

“But in Maryland, there’s no pre-court notice,” Nethercut said. “If the rent isn’t paid on day one, a court complaint can be filed on day two. Every rent dispute requires gearing up the judicial machinery. That means that in Maryland, and in Baltimore in particular, there are a tremendous number of tenants who need legal advice. Pro bono and legal services can’t fill the need.”

The problems faced by many tenants are acute.

“Many low-income tenants live in substandard conditions where they and their families are exposed to lead paint and other health and safety-code violations,” Nethercut said. “Maryland’s landlord-tenant law functions efficiently as a taxpayer-paid rent collection service for landlords, but much less well as an enforcer of the landlord’s responsibilities. The costs and hardships of the eviction process are continually carried by tenants and the community.”

The new film will complement the PJC’s legal efforts helping individual tenants, outreach and training, policy advocacy in the General Assembly and coalition building.

“We see public education about tenants’ rights as very important,” Nethercut added. “But it’s not sufficient. Laws need to be fair and equally enforced. While teaching tenants how to represent themselves is good, it only goes so far.

“At some point, you need a lawyer. And there aren’t enough public interest lawyers to go around.”

The film premiere is free, but reservations are encouraged. E-mail lunna@publicjustice.org or call (410) 625-9409, ext. 235.
Joe Surkiewicz is the director of communications at Maryland Legal Aid. His e-mail is jsurkiewicz@mdlab.org.

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