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Tenants can enforce Baltimore’s licensing law when landlords charge illegal rent, PJC amicus briefs argue

March 28, 2022

When the Public Justice Center and allies successfully advocated to strengthen Baltimore’s rental licensing and inspection law a few years ago, the message was clear: landlords who do not get their property licensed or inspected cannot charge rent. This provision aimed to remove the financial incentive for landlords to rent properties that are unlicensed, most of which are unsafe. Yet Maryland courts have held that tenants cannot enforce their rights under this law when landlords violate the new rules. In two recent amicus briefs filed in the Court of Appeals of Maryland, the PJC, Civil Justice, the Homeless Persons Representation Project, and Maryland Legal Aid connect the crisis of substandard housing to the legacy of segregation in Baltimore and argue that tenants can enforce their rights under the licensing law and via Maryland consumer protection laws.

Written by PJC Murnaghan Fellow Michael Abrams, the briefs in both cases, Aleti et ux. v. Metropolitan Baltimore, LLC et al. and Assanah-Carroll v. Law Offices of Edward J. Maher et al., begin by describing how segregation is at the root of the inequities in Baltimore housing. We explain how Baltimore City enacted formal segregation in the early-20th century with its first-of-its-kind “racial zoning law.” The lines of segregation were then informally perpetuated for another century by City policies, white community organizations, and the federal government. We then link that history to the present-day crisis of affordable housing that pushes disproportionately Black, low-income renters into substandard homes. Finally, we point to the clear legislative context that shows the City Council attempted to remedy this legacy of segregation by forcing repair of substandard conditions.

The Aleti brief responds to a Court of Special Appeals ruling that Section 5-4 of Baltimore’s licensing law does not give rise to an implied private right of action, i.e., the right of individuals to enforce the law in the courts. The court reasoned that the City Council expanded the licensure law to benefit the City in general, not tenants specifically, and that the Council did not intend for tenants to obtain “free rent” solely by showing a unit was unlicensed, without showing any housing code violations. In our brief to the Court of Appeals of Maryland, we challenge that reasoning, arguing that a right of action was implied because, in a very clear prohibition on collecting any rent for an unlicensed property, the City Council specifically protected tenants, and it necessarily intended for tenant enforcement to incentivize compliance. While the Aleti lawsuit’s plaintiffs, who live in a luxury apartment building, may not garner sympathy, we urge the Court to recognize that the tenants are right on the law, and, regardless, at least tenants in substandard housing must have a remedy when landlords violate it. To illustrate the consequences, we describe how the District Court is already citing the Court of Special Appeal’s Aleti opinion when making overbroad rejections of any relief for tenants under Section 5-4 in rent court.

At issue in Assanah-Carroll v. Law Offices of Edward J. Maher et al. is whether violations of Section 5-4 support claims under the private rights of action in the Maryland Consumer Debt Collection Act (MCDCA) and the Maryland Consumer Protection Act (MCPA). In our brief, we explain that – regardless of whether a right of action exists in Section 5-4 itself – violations of Section 5-4 necessarily give rise to claims under the MCDCA and MCPA. Under those laws, debt collectors, including landlords, are forbidden from claiming debts that “do not exist” under law. Because Section 5-4 forbids landlords from charging rent for unlicensed units, when landlords demand such rental payments anyway, they are trying to collect debts that don’t exist. Therefore, tenants facing such demands, or who have already made such payments, have claims under the MCDCA and MCPA. And as in the Aleti brief, we urge the Court of Appeals to recognize that Section 5-4’s strongly worded express prohibition on collecting any rent for an unlicensed property means that the law does not require an independent showing of injury from the lack of license. 

We hope that the Court of Appeals will recognize the necessity for tenants to be able to enforce their right to safe and healthy housing under the law.

Thank you to paralegals Carolina Paul and Lena Yeakey for helping to get these briefs produced and filed.