Baltimore officials want fixes, not fines, from landlords

Housing inspectors in Baltimore have issued more than $34.8 million in fines and late fees to property owners since 2010.

But the city has collected less than a quarter of that money, The Baltimore Sun has found.

The Sun reviewed nearly 121,000 citations issued by the city Department of Housing and Community Development from 2010 through April 21. They included citations for failing to fix unsafe structures, failing to address violation orders and failing to register rental properties.

The city has collected just $8.2 million, according to city records.

"We don't want your money, we want compliance," said Jason Hessler, an assistant city housing commissioner. "In the absence of compliance, we'll take legal action."

But the results of legal action have also been mixed.

The housing department's enforcement unit seeks hundreds of injunctions each year to compel landlords to make repairs. Most of those cases end in dismissals.

Of the nearly 3,000 injunctions filed in District Court from 2010 through 2016, 63 percent were dismissed. Default judgments against landlords were issued in 224 cases, or 7.5 percent. Forty-eight cases went to trial.

The city came to an agreement with the landlord in 830 cases. Hessler said most injunctions result in compliance.

Advocates for tenants say courts are not as accommodating when tenants miss rent payments. Landlords file some 150,000 requests in District Court each year to evict tenants for missed rent — it's the largest docket in Baltimore, and in the state.

The most common result is that the judge approves the request. The hearing typically lasts minutes. Under the law, judges may consider only two questions: The amount of rent, and whether it's due.

The consequences for renters can be long-lasting. Landlords hire consultants and use software to screen the court records of prospective renters for past actions or judgments.

"Tenants are branded," said Zafar Shah, an attorney with the Public Justice Center. "Just the claim of nonpayment of rent becomes data that tenant screenings will use over and over again, ruining the chances that the tenant will ever secure reasonable housing."

Tenants may bring criminal allegations against landlords for violations such as failing to provide essential services — such as heat or water — or illegal eviction.

The Sun examined nearly 1,800 such allegations filed by tenants from 2010 through 2016.

Nearly 83 percent of the cases were dismissed. Five percent ended in not-guilty verdicts.

Only 3 percent — 49 cases — resulted in convictions. In those cases, the average time served was less than two days. The average fine was about $1,347.

Hessler said dismissals are driven by tenants failing to show up for court. In many of those cases, he said, the city assumes the problem has been resolved.

"Sometimes all they wanted was to get the electric back on or get their stuff out of the property," he said. "A lot of times it's just a way the tenant leverages another result.

"Lots of times what we do is more social work then it is law."

Reasons for dismissals in such cases are not listed in court records.

Shah expressed surprise that the city was collecting less than a quarter of its fines and late fees.

"Collecting on the fines will incentivize compliance, so money is part of the compliance equation," Shah said.

Shah sees "disparate treatment in housing policy."

"Landlords are considered businesses and they're treated with a wait-and-see approach with enforcing the law. But when tenants go to court for missing a rent payment they don't get that treatment. The penalty is very severe for them."

Baltimore renters received nearly 70,000 eviction notices last year, leading to nearly 7,500 evictions.

In 2013, the year of the Census Bureau's most recent American Housing Survey, the city led the nation with more than 67,000 notices. There were more than 6,600 actual evictions.

Landlords and property managers dispute the claim that rent court favors them. If anything, they say, it encourages tenants to withhold rent.

"The court systems are tenant-friendly," said Corey Brown, president of C. Brown Properties.

Tenants know they can get away without paying rent for two to three months because the eviction process can take that long, he said.

Such a loss of rental income can put small property owners out of business. Most owners of rental properties in Baltimore are small companies that own, on average, just two homes, an analysis of city rental registration records indicates.

"The court is a place of last resort," Mark F. Scurti, chief judge of the District Court's civil division. "We're the watchdog that when cases comes into court we make sure they're in compliance with the law."

Hessler said the city has to balance enforcement with fostering an investment-friendly market.

"We call it strategic code enforcement," he said.

Michele Cotton, a professor at the University of Baltimore who has studied the city's rent court, said the approach is common.

"There's a big fear in most municipalities that if they put too much pressure on landlords then they have to take over the housing they leave behind," she said. "The city is always nervous that if they're too demanding, landlords will walk away and leave them stuck with the housing stock."

That's precisely the problem, landlords say.

Keith French, an executive with Blue Star Properties, said tenants use the courts to avoid paying rent, and inspectors can be overly aggressive with citations.

"The city does everything to discourage investment," he said.

Alan Mallach, a senior fellow at the Center for Community Progress, has studied licensing procedures across the nation to determine which approaches were most effective at improving housing conditions.

The city hired him last year to assess Baltimore's Vacants to Value program.

Mallach described the city's enforcement efforts as reactive, and said they do not require enough properties to be inspected.

The city requires annual inspections of the rental properties it licenses. But it requires licenses only of properties that include three or more rental units.

That amounts to about 6,000 properties, city officials said. More than 50 percent of rentals are rowhouses that contain one or two rental apartments, Mallach's research shows.

"You're missing a huge percentage of the total rental stock, but you're especially missing a much larger percentage of the problem housing stock," Mallach said. "That's probably the single biggest hole in the system.

"The single most effective thing the city of Baltimore could do to improve the quality of rental housing," he said, "is to expand licensing and have a routine inspection system."

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About this series

Sun Investigates team members Doug Donovan and Jean Marbella spent a year examining Baltimore’s court system for landlord-tenant disputes. They spent dozens of hours of observing court proceedings and touring tenants’ homes, interviewed dozens of tenants, landlords, officials, and analysts, and reviewed thousands of pages of court filings and other documents. The Baltimore Sun’s work was supported by a grant from the Solutions Journalism Network.

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