Unity crumbles over plans to reform Maryland eviction process

Despite a history of fierce feuding, landlord and tenant advocacy groups set aside their differences last year and united behind legislation to reform the eviction process in Maryland.

The bill they backed would have given tenants accused of failing to pay rent at least a week’s notice before they had to appear in court. It would have required landlords to prove that their rentals complied with state lead paint rules before they could take tenants to court.

The bill failed in the legislature. Yet the landlords, tenants and judges who brokered the compromise praised each other for agreeing to specific fixes, and hoped it might fare better this year.

But the common ground they found last year is now once again a battleground.

Landlords and tenants are accusing each other of negotiating in bad faith over the two elements they agreed to support just last year. Even judges have backed away from supporting the consensus the Maryland Judiciary built in 2016 when it formed the task force that forged the compromise.

“There wasn’t much we could agree to except the lead paint compliance and seven-day notice,” said Molly Amster, Baltimore director of Jews United For Justice. “Here we are two years later and we haven’t done anything to address the inequities [in rent court]. It’s unconscionable.”

In a pair of influential studies over the past two years, the Public Justice Center and Maryland Legal Aid have highlighted what they say are flaws in the court process that help landlords evict tenants. Landlords brought more than 640,000 failure-to-pay rent cases statewide in fiscal year 2016, including nearly 150,000 in Baltimore, which led to nearly 7,500 evictions.

In an investigative series published last year, The Baltimore Sun detailed how judges who handle tenant complaints of substandard living conditions routinely ruled in favor of landlords, even when city inspectors showed that the landlords were renting properties with no heat, rodents, lead paint and other problems.

In 2016, the Maryland judiciary authorized a task force to study the problems and develop solutions. The panel worked for nearly a year before publishing the report that led to the compromise bill that failed last year.

The discord seen in Annapolis this year was taking place behind the scenes last year, both sides now acknowledge.

The Maryland Multi-Housing Association accused the Public Justice Center of pressuring landlords to support the compromise legislation by also backing a bill unfavorable to landlords.

That bill would have prevented landlords from using rent court, and its threat of eviction, to collect unpaid utility bills or repair fees. It was aimed at clarifying the law after a 2016 Court of Appeals decision left that issue murky. Some judges were still letting landlords use the eviction process rather than small claims court to collect those types of bills.

Adam Skolnik, executive director of the Maryland Multi-Housing Association, said the bill was a negotiating ploy that showed bad faith. He said tenant advocates convinced one of his lobbyists to agree to the compromise legislation by pledging to get the unfavorable bill dropped.

The compromise legislation still failed.

This year, tenant advocates are accusing Skolnik of the same thing: opposing what are now two separate bills for the week-long minimum notice and the lead paint certification requirement while supporting a bill that would allow landlords to use rent court to recover not only unpaid rent but outstanding utility bills and repair fees.

Skolnik said that legislation is reasonable because it would require landlords to disclose the additional bills as rent in leases. Landlords without such documents would be prohibited from trying to collect unpaid bills through the eviction process.

“Every time we try to come to an agreement they won’t give anything back,” Skolnik said. “We have no intention of negotiating with them ever again until they agree to negotiate.”

He said the tenant advocates’ goal is to “make evictions take longer.”

“But how long is long enough? It takes 60 to 90 days from the time to filing until they’re put out,” he said. “What more do they want?”

Del. Sandy Rosenberg said it is obvious what the landlords are trying to accomplish.

“There is a Court of Appeals decision that they want to reverse,” the Baltimore Democrat said. “They’re withdrawing their support so the tenant advocates will support a revision of the definition of rent.”

Zafar Shah, a Public Justice Center attorney who worked on the judiciary task force, said the landlords are the ones operating in bad faith.

“There is a total abandonment of the issues we spent 10 months working on together under the guise of compromise,” Shah said.

But he says he has been more surprised that the Maryland Judiciary has opposed the seven-day minimum notice of a trial. The courts say they oppose the proposed notice this year because it would apply only to Baltimore.

Last year the proposal would have applied statewide. Landlords in the Maryland suburbs of Washington did not support the compromise last yearpposed the notice.

“The Judiciary believes there should be statewide consistency and equity in how landlord/tenant cases are processed across Maryland,” the judiciary wrote in a letter to senators.

That has confused tenant advocates. They note that several state eviction rules apply differently in Baltimore now.

Baltimore tenants get four chances to “pay-and-stay” when sheriffs arrive to evict them; renters elsewhere get three chances. Judges in the city can approve a seven-day delay to let tenants procure witnesses; judges elsewhere can give only one day. The sheriff’s office in Baltimore is required only to post a summons to an eviction hearing on the rental property. Deputies across the state must also send notice by mail.

“It feels outrageous,” Amster said.

ddonovan@baltsun.com

twitter.com/dougdonovan

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