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Low-income renters in Baltimore become migrants in their own city

When the furnace in their West Baltimore rowhouse broke last winter, Denise and Marvin Jones did what they could to keep their family warm — and together. They filed a complaint against their landlord. They boiled pots of water and ran space heaters. They sent their four children to bed bundled in coats, hats and gloves.

"I didn't want to separate them," Denise said, crying. But "it was so cold."

The family split up in January, fanning out to the heated homes of different relatives across the city even as they continued to pay the $950 monthly rent at their own cold home. They sometimes checked in to motels just to spend a few nights together.

But as temperatures rose with the coming of spring, so did their spirits. After five months, their complaint was advancing in Baltimore District Court. And Marvin had located a new home.

And then, just days before their court date last May, the landlord changed the locks and tossed most of their belongings in an alley. Scavengers made off with their clothes, furniture and an irreplaceable family heirloom: The American flag that had draped the casket of Denise's grandfather, a World War II veteran.

Eviction, and the threat of eviction, weigh heavily on the lives of many of Baltimore's poorest tenants. They move from one ramshackle rental to the next, migrants in their own city, squeezed by rents that consume most of their meager incomes, intolerable housing conditions, a court system that advocates say is insufficiently responsive to their complaints, and a rate of eviction actions that is among the highest in the nation.

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.

Since then, Baltimore District Court has issued 282,000 more eviction orders and nearly 28,000 formal evictions.

That figure likely understates the actual number of renters who are cast from their homes. Hundreds each year are locked out or forced out by landlords without going through the court system, as required by law. Others skip court dates and simply move out before the process plays out.

Landlords say they try to avoid evictions, which can be time-consuming and costly. But when a tenant is unable or unwilling to pay, they have no other option. Many landlords use a tenant's rent payment to pay the mortgage on the property; if they don't get paid, they can face foreclosure.

Decent, affordable housing is simply out of reach for many in Baltimore. In a recent analysis for the Abell Foundation, Johns Hopkins researcher Philip M.E. Garboden concluded that 57 percent of the city's renters are considered "housing-cost burdened," meaning more than 30 percent of their income goes to keeping a roof over their heads.

A full third of renters are severely burdened — they spend more than half of their income on housing.

The Baltimore Sun spent a year following several families in and out of homes, courtrooms and eviction prevention programs. Reporters examined hundreds of case files, observed dozens of hours of court hearings, obtained thousands of pages of inspection and property records, court documents, utility bills, legal opinions and studies.

For families, an eviction can trigger a downward spiral.

Already struggling financially, evicted tenants followed by Sun reporters faced new expenses: money for hotel rooms, or storage units to hold their furniture and belongings. And once they found new places to rent, they needed money for a security deposit and moving expenses.

Many families end up in a worse home or neighborhood than they left, because fewer landlords will rent to tenants with evictions on their records.

Parents lose transportation and jobs. Children who transfer from school to school miss out on education, relationships with friends, and familiarity. All may suffer stress and depression. Harvard University sociologist Matthew Desmond documented the impacts in "Evicted," his 2016 Pulitzer Prize-winning book on the struggles of eight families in Milwaukee.

"We have to conclude that evictions — which used to be rare in cities like Baltimore, which used to draw crowds — are not just a condition of poverty," Desmond told participants in a recent University of Baltimore seminar. Rather, he said, they are "a cause of it."

"Eviction causes loss. Families lose not only their homes but often their schools, their neighborhoods and their possessions. ... If we want more family stability, more community stability, we need fewer evictions."

Students in Baltimore change schools at rates far higher than anywhere else in Maryland.

The city district recorded some 12,750 transfers or withdrawals in the last school year. Nearly half involved movement from one city school to another.

While there is little data to tie that movement to evictions, advocates for tenants and for students agree that evictions are a significant factor. The result: lower scores for students and their schools.

A University of Chicago researcher has found that the more children move, the further students fall behind academically.

Students who changed schools four or more times by sixth grade, for example, were about a year behind classmates who had more stability in their education, researcher David Kerbow said.

Research by Desmond shows that workers who are evicted are between 11 to 22 percent more likely to be laid off. The eviction process can take weeks, and involve multiple court hearings, forcing low-income workers to take time off that puts their jobs more at risk than higher-paid employees, who are more likely to be able to use paid sick leave.

The stress of fighting an eviction, finding a new house and moving can also hurt job performance, Desmond wrote in the journal Social Problems. Forced moves increase tardiness and absenteeism.

Evicted tenants tend to relocate to "poorer and higher-crime neighborhoods," and accept substandard housing — with potentially long-lasting effects.

"Residential instability often brings about other forms of instability in families, schools, and communities that compromise the life chances of adults and children," he wrote.

That's especially true for mothers, who are more likely to suffer depression and to report worse health for themselves and their children. Even two years after an eviction, mothers reported higher rates of depression and "material hardship" than peers who were not evicted.

Benjamin Frederick III, a longtime property owner, manager and Realtor in the city, said evictions are never desirable, but some small number is to be expected.

Baltimore saw 7,500 evictions last year from the city's 128,000 rental properties, a rate of nearly 6 percent.

"That's not bad," Frederick said. "You're always going to have people who don't pay the rent."

The eviction rates in New York and Washington were about 1 percent.

Corey Brown, owner of C. Brown Property Management, is one of several landlords who spoke of "professional tenants," who they say abuse the court and city regulatory systems by filing bogus complaints, or report problems by calling the city's 311 line instead of contacting their landlords.

The Sun's analysis of 5,511 complaints filed in court by tenants from 2010 through November 2016 did not find a significant number of repeat players. Advocates for tenants say few are even aware of the complaint process, which is supposed to give them an avenue for justice against landlords who do not provide liveable homes.

Brown and Frederick both say landlords would rather avoid evictions if possible.

"It's cheaper to keep her," Brown said — a rule he shares with other landlords. In impoverished neighborhoods, he says, a tenant who is late with the rent but eventually pays is often the best landlords can hope for.

"If they had high credit scores and money in the bank, they wouldn't be renting in these neighborhoods," Brown said. "This market is tough."

He speaks from experience.

The 36-year-old property manager grew up in Baltimore. He says he doesn't remember his father being around. His mother always held a job of some sort to pay the rent. The utilities might be cut off, he said. Food might be short. But the rent was always paid.

They did, however, move a lot.

"We lived all over the city," he said.

His "cheaper to keep her" advice deliberately characterizes tenants as women.

The tenants who file in and out of Baltimore's rent court on Fayette Street are mostly black women, some with toddlers and infants in tow, others waiting anxiously for their cases to be called before they lose more unpaid hours from work.

Desmond has observed a similar dynamic elsewhere: "Poor black men are locked up while poor black women are locked out."

Brown says he deals mostly with women.

"It sucks, but it's so true," he said. "Most of the heads of households are women because there's not enough men."

Like his mother, many of the women and their families are constantly on the move.

"It's a revolving door," he said. "They go from one place to the next to the next."

'Moving, Moving, Moving'

Six-year-old Mesiyah Rucker offered to help his mother raise the money to pay the rent.

Zina Rucker says she almost cried.

"He said, 'I can get a job selling cookies or lemonade to get some money for you,'" Rucker said. "I told him he's only 6 years old, your mind should be on school, not on helping mommy pay the rent."

After three years of moving from one rented room to another, Rucker and her son had finally settled into a real house last April. She said she agreed to pay landlord Eric Duvall $850 per month to live in the rowhouse in the 2600 block of Madison Ave. in East Baltimore.

Rucker earns minimum wage helping nurses in an assisted-living facility in Northwest Baltimore. She receives $344 a month in food stamps.

She says Duvall, whom she says is her uncle, promised flexibility if she ever needed extra time to pay the rent.

But by September, she says, she fell a month behind, and he threatened to evict her.

Rucker has been on the waiting list for public housing for six years. As Desmond has pointed out, only one in four families who qualify for housing assistance actually receive it.

"I don't want to stay in no shelter," she said. "That's a whole different lifestyle. I don't want him to be introduced to all that. How do I explain that to a 6-year-old?

"We just been moving, moving, moving," she said. "I just want to have something for my son. I need a stable home for my son. I am working. I just need a little bit of help."

Rucker turned to Bon Secours Community Works, one of several programs in town that offers eviction prevention assistance. But she did not qualify for the $700 grant aimed at forestalling an eviction. The program requires that recipients be able to pay the rent going forward.

She eventually found two roommates to move in with her and split the $850 rent three ways.

Their days started early. Rucker says she woke Mesiyah up at 5 a.m. to get him to the bus stop by 6:45 for the ride to Furley Elementary School.

On a typical morning last fall, she combed his hair and checked to see if he had brushed his teeth. Finally, she looked into his eyes and pleaded: "Please don't get in any fights today. If someone hits you, just tell your teacher."

Then she walked to the subway stop at Johns Hopkins Hospital to get to her job at Dee's Assisted Living by 9. A roommate would watch Mesiyah until Rucker returned home near 5 p.m.

Rucker and her son shared a single bed in a small front room of the rowhouse. A hanging sheet separated the room from the rest of the first floor. They ate at a child-sized plastic table.

Two mice crawled across the kitchen counter and slipped through the burners of the oven. Despite the smell and appearance of a well-cleaned house, roaches dashed across the wall and floor, chased by Rucker's small dog, Honey.

After Duvall threatened to throw her out, Rucker says, she called housing inspectors to complain about conditions in the home.

A city housing inspector found seven violations, including a defective floor, three defective electric outlets, a broken bedroom window, a cracked ceiling and flaking paint. The inspector did not note mice or roaches.

Duvall declined to comment.

"The case is over," he told The Baltimore Sun. "I don't want to talk about it."

At a court hearing over her missed rent payment, Rucker told the judge about the inspector's report. The judge told her to file a tenant complaint down the hall and return to his courtroom, where he would set a date for a new hearing.

He warned her to make sure she arrived at that next hearing with all of the rent she owed or she would risk having the case dismissed.

She missed the hearing — her ride bailed, she said, and the bus would have taken too long — and the case was dismissed. She moved out in December. Now, she says, she pays $200 for her and her son to sleep on a blow-up mattress on the floor of her grandmother's dining room in South Baltimore.

She did qualify and receive a federally funded Rental Assistance Program voucher that pays half of the rent for low-income families who "either are homeless or have an emergency housing need."

Rucker said she has not been able to sign a new lease with the voucher because she still owes $500 to Baltimore Gas & Electric from Duvall's house. The voucher would pay $340 of her $845 rent. But she is still struggling to save money as she pays $275 for classes to obtain a medical technician's license.

She says the moving has been hardest on her son. She says he has been acting out, with bursts of anger and fights at school. She has kept him enrolled at Furley even though it requires a long school bus ride to East Baltimore.

"I can't take the one thing out of his life that has been consistent," she said. "When we move, I'll change schools next year.

"I'm so dying to get out."

'My grandchildren won't be homeless'

On a Monday morning in October, Lisavida Johnson waited outside her rowhouse near Hollins Market for whoever would arrive first.

If it was someone from the property management company, she said, she could pay to halt the eviction process. But if it was a sheriff's deputy, she'd be put out.

Johnson, 37, had feared this day would come almost from the start, when she and her six children, ages 6 to 16, moved into the house on the first block of S. Carrollton Ave.

They had spent seven months in homeless shelters before a housing program helped the family move into the home. It rented for $1,000 a month.

Johnson does not have a job. She said her income, from the state's Temporary Cash Assistance for needy families program, was less than $1,100 per month. But she was hopeful that her application for federal Supplemental Security Income benefits, for her mental health problems, would be approved.

For several months, the housing program helped Johnson pay her rent.

But the SSI benefits didn't come through and by October, Johnson was behind several months' worth of rent. With late fees and utility bills, she says she was never clear on how much she owed, and how much she could pay to forestall eviction for at least another month.

Over the weekend, she said she had scrapped together $450 and taken a succession of buses to deliver it to the property management company in Baltimore County. But once there, she said she learned she needed another $80.

She arranged to have it on hand when the company sent a representative to her house on Monday. When he arrived, she says he told her she actually had to pay $90. She found the extra money, and was able to tell a sheriff's deputy who arrived later in the morning that she was paid up.

In the small rowhouse, one of her children's school projects, a three-panel posterboard display about "The Nervous System" sat on a table in the living room. Johnson had to convince her 11-year-old daughter to go to school that day. The girl wanted to stay home and somehow help if the eviction had gone through.

"It's been a lot for the children, but I got good children," Johnson said. "That's what I invested in these last 15 years."

She said she has put them in therapy for children of parents with mental illness, and has managed through the moves to keep her youngest kids at well-regarded Govans Elementary School on the opposite side of town.

Her dreams for her children's future are shaped by her present. She points to her oldest daughter, the 11-year-old.

"She's going to have a credit score of 740 and can buy a house," Johnson said. "My grandchildren won't be homeless."

But as of the first of March, the whole family was homeless.

It was the culmination of months of living in a house she couldn't afford, triggering a cycle of eviction notices and hearings in rent court. She arrived at one hearing last fall pulling a crumpled mess of bills, water shut-off warnings and eviction papers from her bag, trying to prove what she had paid.

In the hallway of the courthouse, the property manager told Johnson he couldn't stand the thought of six kids being thrown out of the house in the coming winter. He dropped the rent by $200. But even then it was clear Johnson would never dig herself out of the hole.

She says her landlord gave her until March 1 to move out.

The day before the deadline, she trudged about a mile and a half from her home with a neighbor boy, at one point squeezing through a gap in a fence and over railroad tracks in an industrial section off Russell Street, to get to a storage facility.

She rented a unit to stash her belongings while she moved her family into a hotel and tried to find permanent lodgings.

The staff kindly gave a famished, tired Johnson a chilled bottle of water and some chips, but also some bad news: The cost to lease the unit was $76. She had just $40.

After a flurry of phone calls to find the extra money, a manager agreed to let her pay $36 and bring the rest when she returned with her stuff later in the day.

She left for the walk back with $4, which disappeared pretty quickly. She ran into someone she owed $3. Then she passed a place where she knew the soda machine had 50-cent drinks.

With her remaining dollar, she could treat both herself and the neighbor boy.

The machine was out of the 50-cent cans, so she sprang for a single 75-cent soda.

Back home, no one had started dinner, done the dishes or finished packing up their rooms. The puppy — a new addition, and the reason the family couldn't go to a shelter — had pooped on the floor.

Johnson got her kids moving. She started working her phone, trying to raise money for both the storage unit and a hotel room.

She and her kids spent March and part of April first in a hotel, then a basement someone rented to them and, finally, a three-bedroom rowhouse on Lombard Street, just around the corner from her last home.

Johnson said she had begun to receive SSI benefits, and her new landlord dropped the rent from $1,100 to $900.

Johnson said she believes the family is done moving for now. On a recent afternoon, she continued unpacking containers that had been in storage as a yellow school bus dropped off her three youngest kids from school.

She found a Roget's Thesaurus in one of the containers, and her 10-year-old son, Aaron, lit up — he said he's working to improve his vocabulary.

As Johnson made after-school snacks, Aaron said he's already getting used to the new house. Still, he thinks back before all the moving — including stays in shelters and a night in a park — when they lived in a nice place in Northeast Baltimore.

"That's where I have the most memories," he said.

Staying put, for now

Having moved in and out of homes, motels, shelters, and relatives' houses over the past three years, Denise and Marvin Jones are fighting to stay put in their apartment near Ashburton.

They are pained by the struggles of their children, who have transferred from Calloway Middle School to Ashburton Middle.

"It was a tough transition, education-wise," Marvin said.

It didn't help that they started with so few clothes. Those were snagged by scavengers.

"The kids lost their clothes," Denise said. "They lost their shoes."

Still, she said, "I did a lot of praying that everything would come out all right."

While Denise prayed, Marvin read. With no lawyer and no legal training, he learned his rights and decided to fight the landlord, Tiffany Management.

Ten properties owned by Tiffany have accumulated nearly two dozen housing code citations at 10 properties. One mother with a young child told The Sun that she had to heat her house with stove-top burners.

Those citations have resulted in $9,615 in outstanding fines and late fees, according to city data. Only $300 has been recorded as being paid.

Attempts to reach Adrienne Hollimon, listed in court records as the sole proprietor of Tiffany Management LLC, were unsuccessful.

Messages left at three telephone numbers listed in court records were not returned. A Sun reporter who visited her office twice during office hours found the door locked both times.

A Tiffany representative who appeared at court, Lisa Hines, and a former employee, Lawrence Whitter, could not put The Sun in touch with Hollimon. No one appeared for the company at the last two court hearings in the Jones case.

Hollimon filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in federal court in March. A judge dismissed the case this month after determining that she had not filed all the required paperwork.

Hollimon purchased the homes for an average price of $38,000, property records show. All but one were sold by the Department of Housing and Urban Development or Freddie Mac.

Hollimon may have met her match in Marvin.

"I'm not giving up," he said. "I'm tired of moving."

In December 2015, Marvin Jones filed a complaint alleging that there was no heat in the rowhouse, flaking and peeling lead paint accessible to a child, a broken bathroom sink, and exposed, leaking pipes.

He asked for his rent to be reduced to $200 and that the court award him damages of $7,600 because, he said, Tiffany had violated its obligation to provide a habitable home.

A city housing inspector found nine code violations. The inspector reported that "proper heating equipment is lacking," there was no hot water, and there was a defective toilet, ceiling, faucet and wall.

Judge Nicole Pastore Klein opened an escrow account. Denise and Marvin could pay rent into that account until Tiffany corrected the problems.

But Klein also told the couple to pay the full $950 rent, or she would dismiss the case.

Heat-related violations are supposed to be expedited. But the judge gave Tiffany until mid-February before the next inspection. At the next hearing, the repairs still had not been made. The court gave the landlord until late March to fix the furnace and other problems.

In April, as winter drew to an end, Judge Mark Scurti found that the work was still not completed. And messy repairs had exposed Denise Jones, who has congestive heart failure, to "dust and debris" that sent her to the hospital.

Scurti let the family live rent-free for May and June.

In May, two days before the next hearing, Marvin Jones called police and alleged that property manager Lawrence Whitter had illegally locked the family out.

Whitter declined to comment to The Sun, except to say he no longer works for Hollimon.

Jones told Scurti about the lockout.

The judge chastised Hines for arriving unprepared to explain why the locks were changed and the Joneses' possessions were tossed in the alley.

Hines said Tiffany had assumed the family had moved out.

If they had moved out, Scurti asked, why were all their belongings still inside? He then awarded the couple the full amount of rent that they had paid into escrow: $4,750.

He also ordered Tiffany to pay $3,050 in damages to the couple for the belongings that were pilfered.

Tiffany Management immediately appealed the decision and filed a lawsuit claiming that the Joneses had caused $12,000 in damages to the apartment. That lawsuit was dismissed in July.

Today, Denise and Marvin have settled in a new apartment on Wabash Avenue. They still need more furniture and clothes. But the heat and the appliances all work.

Still, they could really use that $3,050. Tiffany Management has still not paid them.

"It's just a struggle," Denise said. "We can't really do anything."

Except, Marvin adds, keep fighting in court. Denise nods. She said she prays for her landlord, unable to understand why he would treat his tenants like that.

"We were good tenants. Always paid on time," she says. "For the things that Mr. Larry does to some people, he should have to pay."

On Oct. 13, Denise said, her prayers were answered.

Marvin arrived early at the Circuit Court building on Calvert Street that Thursday morning dressed in blue sweatpants and a stained hooded sweatshirt. On the cellphone, Denise told him to try to delay the trial to get a lawyer. She said she was worried Marvin was out of his depth.

Like most tenants, they had navigated the entire process without a lawyer. But the couple was nervous that they could lose everything on appeal.

But when the case was called in the cavernous fifth-floor courtroom of Judge Alfred Nance, Marvin was the only party present. He took a seat at a table before Nance.

Nance called out "Tiffany Management" several times.

No answer.

As bells tolled 10 a.m. outside, Nance affirmed Scurti's decision to award Jones $3,050 in damages.

Outside the courtroom, Marvin called Denise. "We won," he told her.

"Thank the Lord," she said. "God answered our prayers."

"I just hope the money comes before Christmas," Marvin said.

It didn't.

The couple has been to court twice this year, but the landlord never showed. Marvin and Denise are still waiting for their $3,050. They say they are barely making ends meet on their $1,050 income, and worry they might have to move again.

"It's been a whole year and we still ain't got nothing," Marvin Jones said.

Their next hearing is May 25. It's the last step before a judge can declare the landlord in contempt of the court's order to pay.

The couple will be representing themselves.

Marvin Jones said the family is pleased with their new apartment complex. But he's still angry that the children lost so many belongings, and that the family remains split.

After the eviction and a brief stint in a city shelter, their daughter and granddaughter moved to North Carolina. They haven't returned.

"We just haven't come to par to get the kids back what they had or to give them what they need to keep going forward," he said.

ddonovan@baltsun.com

jmarbella@baltsun.com

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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.