Tenants at Sage Management apartments and townhouses in Baltimore filed a class action lawsuit Friday against the property management company for allegedly charging illegal late fees, according to a compliant filed in the city's Circuit Court.
The 29-page lawsuit — which is open to current and former tenants since January 2004 — claims the company routinely charges tenants who are late on their rent a 5 percent penalty along with agent, court and eviction fees that trap the families in a cycle of debt.
"I have met dozens and dozens of Sage Management tenants from East Baltimore and West Baltimore; what they have in common is they come to us very confused," said Zafar Shah, a staff attorney with Public Justice Center, which filed the lawsuit.
"There is a hopelessness that the cycle is not going to stop. … This is a way to stop the bleeding."
Right to Housing Alliance also is helping in the effort to challenge Sage's alleged practices.
Sage Management declined to comment about the lawsuit. According to its website, Baltimorevouchers.com the company owns nine complexes and specializes in affordable housing for families with Section 8 vouchers.
"We are committed to providing a safe, pleasant and healthy environment for all our clients," the website says. "Our company strives to tackle maintenance issues as quickly and as professionally as possible, always considering the tenants needs, safety and privacy."
The lawsuit, which seeks $75,000 and a court action to stop Sage's allegedly illegal billing and collection practices, claims when a tenant pays rent after the fifth of the month, the company legally assesses a 5 percent late fee and, by the 15th of the month, files court action against the tenant.
The company also adds court and agent fees of $38 to the tenant's balance, even if no agent fee was incurred, according to the lawsuit. That's at least $11 more than the cost of the court filing.
In some cases, Sage also allegedly adds an "eviction and agent fee" on tenants' accounts that exceed the company's court costs.
Sage routinely sues at least 200 of its tenants in the city's housing court each month, according to housing advocates.
Shah said landlords filed nearly 157,000 lawsuits for nonpayment in Baltimore's rent court last year, far exceeding any other type of lawsuit filed in city courts.
The lawsuit further claims the fees, charges and penalties continue to appear on Sage's accounting records after the tenants have paid the rent that's due and even when the payment has resulted in the dismissal of legal actions by the district court.
What's more, the suit says, Sage applies the tenants' next rent payments to cover the fees and charges, resulting in a partial rental payment, and continuing the cycle.
Plaintiff Shonda Billings said her experience renting a two-bedroom unit at Park Lane Apartments has been a "horror show." She pays $665 a month.
Billings, a nursing assistant and mother of two, said she's been late on her rent various times since her family moved to Park Lane in September 2011. Between 2011 and 2013, she was charged more than $800 in court and agent fees and more than $650 in eviction and agent fees.
She said she would move out, if she could afford to.
"If you have money to go somewhere and pay $1,100 or $1,200 a month, pay it, I am with you," Billings said. "I live paycheck to paycheck like the next person, and it's not easy."
Detrese Dowridge, another Park Lane tenant who signed on to the lawsuit, said she wanted to take a stand against Sage to protect other families in her situation. She rents a two-bedroom for $665 a month for herself and her 10-year-old son.
"I just want to be treated fairly by these landlords," Dowridge, a medical technician, said, adding, "People are scared to speak up out of fear of retaliation. Just because you may be poor, you don't have to go through this."
Dowridge, who moved to the apartment in 2009 and has missed rent payments in the past, said between 2011 and 2013 she was charged $700 for court and agent fees and $850 in eviction and agent fees.
"I wish I could move out, or had the luxury to pick up and move, but who's to say I wouldn't be dealing with the same situation with another landlord."
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