Evictions perpetuate Baltimore's cycle of poverty

Evictions are devastating for the families who go through them. The process is all-consuming. Low-income tenants spend hours going to court to plead their cases or begging family, friends and social service agencies for help. They lose time at work, and an already precarious financial situation becomes worse. They live in anxiety about every knock on the door, wondering whether it might be a property agent or sheriff's deputies ready to dump all their belongings onto the street. And if the worst comes, they may find themselves suddenly homeless, struggling to keep the family together, desperate to provide any sense of normalcy for their children as they are torn away from neighborhoods and schools.

All that happens with shocking frequency in Baltimore. As The Sun's Doug Donovan and Jean Marbella reported on Sunday, city tenants received nearly 70,000 eviction notices in fiscal 2016. That's almost 190 per day, and more than one for every two rental units in the city. More than 7,500 tenants were actually evicted that year — about 20 per day — and untold numbers of others were forced to move when they couldn't pay.

That's not normal. Baltimore is an outlier both in the raw numbers of evictions and in the rate at which eviction notices lead to families put out on the street.

A 2015 report by the Public Justice Center and funded by the Abell Foundation used census data to show that Baltimore ranked second only to Detroit in terms of the percentage of tenants who faced eviction notice. Last year, the real estate listings company Redfin compiled a report on the actual number of evictions in metro areas for which it was able to obtain data. That didn't include Baltimore, but the rate documented by The Sun — 59 evictions per 1,000 rental households — would top nearly every city in the Redfin report, dwarfing, for example, the rate in Milwaukee, which was the setting of Harvard sociologist Matthew Desmond's Pulitzer Prize-winning book on the eviction crisis.

Part of the answer lies in reforms to Baltimore's rent court. Property owners are almost always represented by attorneys or managers with extensive experience in the eviction process; tenants are almost always on their own. And while the rules allow non-lawyers to represent property owners, that isn't the case for tenants, making it more difficult and expensive to provide them with representation. That must change. So must rules and practices that prevent tenants from bringing complaints about unsafe living conditions unless they are current on their rent, but which don't prevent landlords from seeking eviction from units that aren't habitable. A variety of other changes, including extended notice requirements, passed the House of Delegates this year but failed in the Senate.

But the other issue is that Baltimore faces a severe lack of affordable housing. According to a report last year by the United Way of Central Maryland, 55 percent of units in the city are rented to people with incomes too low to meet subsistence-level expenses for housing, transportation, child care, health care and food. And 55 percent of city renters pay more than 30 percent of their income in rent. The study found a gap of more than 30,000 affordable units here.

Baltimore's affordable housing law has been an abject failure, having produced about 40 units over a decade. In November, city voters approved the creation of an affordable housing trust fund, but the mayor and City Council still need to find ways to fund it. That could help — such vehicles have been used in hundreds of jurisdictions across the country — but ultimately, passing an inclusionary housing law with teeth, like the one Montgomery County has long employed, is a necessity. Fewer people will get evicted if more can afford their rent.

In the short term, we must recognize that the costs of Baltimore's eviction rate are enormous. The city has allocated piddling amounts to eviction prevention programs, with the number of grants to help renters stay in their homes dropping by two-thirds between 2011 and 2014, the last year for which data are available. Both Washington and New York provide substantially more generous assistance to tenants facing foreclosure, and eviction rates there are one-sixth what they are in Baltimore. Advocates in New York have documented a substantial return on investment for the city in terms of reduced shelter costs and social services.

But the long-term dividends from keeping families intact and stable are enormous. What was most heartbreaking about Mr. Donovan's and Ms. Marbella's investigation were their accounts of the impact evictions have on parents and children — the struggle of parents to avoid shelters and the burdens children must face to maintain any kind of continuity in their education. How much brighter might Baltimore's future be if evictions here were rare and not the 20-times-a-day norm?

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