Officials want to end Baltimore rent court disparities

City and state officials say tenants in Baltimore's rent court must have better access to lawyers, and that more needs to be done to reduce evictions and improve rental housing.

Mayor Catherine E. Pugh said she is exploring ways to support legal services for low-income tenants, who typically fend for themselves against well-represented landlords in rent court. She also wants to increase funding for eviction prevention programs, and is looking at expanding licensing and inspections to cover all rental properties.

Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh said a Baltimore Sun investigation of rent court shows that low-income tenants "are at a disadvantage" and that the General Assembly should consider making access to an attorney a civil right.

The Maryland Access to Justice Commission has recommended for years that state lawmakers study the issue, but costs consistently derail the proposal.

"You're talking about hundreds of millions of dollars," Frosh said. "There's never been a time when there's been a spare hundred million dollars.

"It's a very difficult problem to solve," he added.

The Sun found that the court, which was set up to give tenants a voice in disputes over housing conditions and evictions, tends to favor landlords, who typically are better funded, organized and represented.

As a state senator last year, Pugh sponsored the creation of a panel to recommend reforms.

After months of discussion, the landlords, tenant advocates, judges and government agencies — including Frosh's office — agreed to more than a dozen recommendations, including more legal help to "level the playing field" for tenants, members reported.

A bill introduced by Del. Samuel Rosenberg would have given judges more ways to examine questionable complaints from landlords about unpaid rent. It had the support of both advocates for tenants and of landlords. But it died in a Senate committee.

Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat, said The Sun's findings show an imbalance between landlords and tenants in rent court, particularly in legal representation. He said it needs to be rectified.

"The investigation makes it extremely clear that one side has representation in the vast majority of cases — that's the landlord — and the tenants do not," he said. "And that is an injustice ... That's just dead wrong. It exacerbates and worsens the inequity in the system."

Rosenberg said he plans to bring the bill back next session.

Maryland Legal Aid provides free representation for low-income residents in civil cases, and last year released a study in which it concluded some landlords won cases in rent court despite errors in documenting claims. Officials with the nonprofit said the scrutiny of rent court is necessary.

"The issues are so important, so consequential," said Greg Countess, who directs advocacy for housing and community economic development for Legal Aid. "It's the difference between a person keeping their home or becoming homeless. It determines whether children can continue their education or whether that is disrupted."

Joe Rohr, chief attorney for Legal Aid's housing and consumer unit, said representation for tenants is clearly the most pressing need.

"The problems that were documented [by The Sun] are consistent with what we have seen in our practice in the District Court — especially with unrepresented tenants," he said. "That's really the most critical problem. Unrepresented tenants have a much harder time in rent court."

The consumer protection division under Frosh supported Rosenberg's bill. In a letter to the legislature, the division said it "provides important protections for tenants without overly burdening landlords."

Rosenberg and some advocates for tenants have also called for a change in the state law on representation in rent court.

Under current law, tenants may be represented by attorneys or may represent themselves. They may not be represented by anyone who isn't an attorney, or supervised by one.

Landlords may be represented by agents who are not attorneys. It's a common role for property managers, who learn the system.

"If landlords don't need practicing lawyers to represent them, then it's certainly feasible to have someone comparable for tenants," Rosenberg said.

Frosh doubted that such a fix could benefit tenants. They would still need someone familiar with the legal process, he said.

"It's probably not fair, but even if you made it bilateral it might not help," he said. "It probably wouldn't make much of a difference."

Pugh, Frosh and Rosenberg all spoke of a navigator program administered by the University of Baltimore to start this fall. Specialists will be available at the courthouse on Fayette Street to help tenants understand the system. They will not be allowed to give legal advice.

The Maryland Judiciary plans to open a self-help center for tenants and landlords in July. It has awarded $88,500 to the Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland to train volunteer attorneys, who are scheduled to begin offering help to tenants in rent court later this month.

The program will supplement efforts by the Public Justice Center, which published a report that started the reform process last year. Baltimore's Department of Housing and Community Development pays the center $35,000 per year to provide legal services to hundreds of tenants facing eviction for nonpayment of rent and loss of housing due to substandard conditions or foreclosure.

Such volunteers can "make a big difference," Frosh said. But "getting enough volunteers is a challenge."

He said the group that worked on recommending those programs made "progress," despite the defeat of Rosenberg's bill.

"It's obviously very important. We're talking about people's houses and losing them. Tenants are at a huge disadvantage economically and legally," he said.

And any fixes have to maintain the rights of landlords who have legitimate cases against tenants, Frosh said.

Pugh said housing has become her top priority now that police reforms are underway and school budget woes have been addressed.

She said helping tenants on the brink of eviction stay in their homes is critical.

Funding for eviction prevention has been declining for years, as evictions have grown.

In the Census Bureau's most recent American Housing Survey, in 2013, Baltimore's renters received more court-ordered eviction notices per capita than any other city. More than 67,000 notices that year led to more than 6,600 evictions.

Last year, rent court judges approved nearly 70,000 eviction orders that led to nearly 7,500 evictions.

"We have to make sure that people are not evicted," Pugh said. "We have to reform our eviction policies in the city."

Pugh said The Sun's investigation highlights a need for reforms not just in rent court but for city oversight of rental housing. Nearly 53 percent of homes in Baltimore are rentals.

"Baltimore needs help," Pugh said. "It needs help in housing. It needs help in infrastructure."

Pugh is searching for new leadership at the Department of Housing and Community Development. She said she wants to split the department into two separate agencies. The Housing Authority of Baltimore City would focus exclusively on public and affordable rental housing for low-income city residents. Community development would foster and manage growth.

Pugh is hopeful that President Donald Trump might be willing to work with the city to help.

"What has been said is that cities need help," Pugh said. "I'm focused on how do we get that help."

She said the process of helping tenants avoid evictions also demands consideration of landlords' needs.

"What are we going to do to accommodate landlords but that doesn't disadvantage those who are underrepresented in the court system?" she asked.

The mayor said she has instructed housing officials to explore licensing all rental properties in Baltimore, not just multi-family buildings with three or more rental units. Research indicates that licensing can help to improve the quality of housing.

She said she has directed the officials to report back to her by the end of the year.

The mayor said all branches of government must work together to tackle housing issues.

"It's not one simple solution," she added. "It's how we collaborate."

ddonovan@baltsun

jmarbella@baltsun

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