Rent court solutions slowly emerge

Legislation sponsored last year by then-state Sen. Catherine E. Pugh brought landlords, tenant advocates and judges together in a work group to discuss ways to improve rent court in Baltimore and across Maryland. After contentious negotiations, the group came to a consensus around several ideas and devised legislation. Their bill, which would have given tenants more rights to defend against eviction proceedings, was introduced in the Maryland General Assembly this year by Del. Samuel Rosenberg. It passed the House of Delegates but died in the Senate's judicial proceedings committee.

But other solutions are in the works.

Train Landlords: The Maryland Multi-Housing Association has developed a best-practices curriculum for a "landlord academy" where judges could send problematic property owners. Status: Under Study.

Improve communication among judges: The Maryland Judiciary has devised a new checklist-style form for judges to provide a consistent record as judges rotate on and off individual cases. A new rent court instruction manual, or "bench book," is also being considered. Status: Forms have been approved.

Deploy More Lawyers: Most tenants do not have an attorney when they go up against landlords in court. More legal representation could result in fewer evictions and better housing conditions.Status: A pro bono pilot program is set to start in May.

Deploy More Non-Lawyers: State law allows landlords to be represented in rent court proceedings by specialist agents who are not lawyers, while prohibiting tenants from the same representation. Rosenberg said the "disparity" should be fixed. Status: Not under consideration

Educate Tenants: The Baltimore District Court plans to try out a navigator program to provide specialists in landlord-tenant law to help renters understand their visits to the courthouse. Status: A pilot program is set to start in the Fall.

Eliminate Legalese: The Maryland Judiciary is considering a new tenant complaint form written in plain language to help renters who are alleging unsafe living conditions better understand all of their rights. Status: Under study.

Expand Inspections: The city performs routine annual inspections only of apartment buildings with three or more units — about 6,000 each year. That leaves tens of thousands of one- and two-unit rentals that go without inspections unless tenants complain. The Public Justice Center has called for expanded licensing as in other jurisdictions. Status: Not under consideration.

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