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Study: providing lawyers for Baltimore tenants to fight eviction can save city and state money

A new study says providing free lawyers to Baltimore tenants facing eviction can save tens of millions of dollars. A block of rowhouses is shown on April 1, 2020, at Wilkens Avenue and Catherine Street.
A new study says providing free lawyers to Baltimore tenants facing eviction can save tens of millions of dollars. A block of rowhouses is shown on April 1, 2020, at Wilkens Avenue and Catherine Street.(Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun)

Housing activists called on the city to provide tenants facing eviction with free lawyers, which a study they released Monday says could save tens of millions of dollars spent when renters are left homeless or otherwise needing government assistance.

The study, funded by the Abell Foundation, estimates it would cost $5.7 million to provide about 7,000 tenants with representation. But it would save more than six times that, or $35.6 million in housing, health, education and other assistance that the city and state spend helping those who have been evicted.

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While Baltimore imposed a moratorium on evictions during the state of emergency due to the coronavirus pandemic, a coalition of activists said Monday they fear a surge of new filings when it is lifted.

The group also highlighted another recent study, by the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Washington, that found the number of evictions of black households in Baltimore was three times that of whites. A map of the neighborhoods color-coded by risk of eviction shows swaths of East and West Baltimore having the most risk in the now familiar pattern of the “black butterfly.”

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That has particular significance to the current pandemic, said Matt Hill, an attorney with Public Justice Center.

“You’re going to see a significant impact both from COVID-19 and evictions on the same folks living in the same areas who are primarily African American,” he said.

City Council President Brandon Scott, a Democratic candidate for mayor, said he supports the proposal, saying “more people are going to need help with evictions” because of the pandemic. The fact that the new study shows preventing evictions also saves money “puts us in a win-win situation.”

A spokesman for Democratic Mayor Bernard C. “Jack" Young, who is running for reelection, said he already has committed to using $13 million in coronavirus relief funds to help tenants pay their rents and acquire legal representation. As for whether Young supports devoting city funds to this beyond the current crisis, his spokesman Lester Davis said the mayor is focused on immediate needs.

“What we’re trying to deal with is addressing the acute need that we have now with COVID-19,” Davis said. “I can’t hypothesize what’s going to happen a year from now, two years from now, three years from now.”

Several Maryland legislators on a video conference announcing the study pledged to work with local leadership to “make sure this happens in Baltimore City,” said Sen. Mary Washington, a Democrat.

Democratic delegates Chanel Branch and Brooke Lierman, both of Baltimore, echoed their support.

The study arguing for free legal representation was done by Stout Risius Ross, a consulting firm that has produced similar reports for other cities that have enacted “right to counsel” laws for tenants facing eviction.

The study found 96% of landlords had representation to argue their cases in rent court, while only 1% of tenants had representation.

The president of a property managers group said tenants can avail themselves of groups such as Public Justice, which has lawyers at rent court to assist them.

“Tenants need to understand what’s going on,” said Mary Jo Whelan, the president of the Baltimore/Washington chapter of the National Association of Residential Property Managers.

She declined, however, to say whether she thinks the city should provide free lawyers for them.

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Hill said Public Justice can’t by itself help all tenants and often has to turn them away.

While Baltimore has about 125,000 rental units, landlords file about 140,000 eviction notices each year, according to the study. It attributes that to the relatively low cost of filing to evict, leading to landlords to use it as a way of collecting rent. About 84% of eviction filings came after renters missed just one month’s payment, Stout’s analysis found.

About 6,500 renters are ultimately evicted every year. Landlords may file eviction actions repeatedly against tenants and stack late fees on top of the past-due rent, further burdening those already struggling to pay.

The lack of enough affordable housing has become a problem in much of the country in recent years as wages have not kept up with rising rents, the study said.

Tenants tend to fare badly in Baltimore rent court, a year-long Baltimore Sun investigation published in 2017 found. Judges routinely ruled in favor of landlords even when housing inspectors verified that tenants were living in unsafe conditions, such as rodent infestations and poisonous lead from old paint.

Cities that have started providing tenants with lawyers are seeing eviction rates drop, Hill said. New York, for example, saw greater drops in evictions in the areas where the program was implemented compared to others, Hill said.

Avoiding eviction means avoiding the cascade of problems that stem from losing housing, advocates say.

Tenants may miss work and lose jobs, children become truant when their families leave their neighborhoods, the study said, and credit scores may be downgraded, leading to even more difficulty finding a new place to live.

Preventing an eviction can save on costs related to operating homeless shelters and transitional housing, providing health care, transportation and other services to suddenly displaced tenants, the study said. It even saves money on the foster care that sometimes results if children have to be removed from their parents.

In addition to the mayor’s new rental assistance program, the City Council has passed a measure preventing rent increases and late fees during, and for three months after, the state of emergency is lifted.

But Hill said more assistance will be needed because so many people have lost work during the shutdown.

While city and state officials have been cutting budgets and warning of plummeting revenues because of the shutdown, Hill said the estimated cost of providing free legal counsel is minimal compared to its benefits down the road.

“The city’s budget and economy will recover,” he said. “In the long term, this will save money.”

Tenants also spoke Monday on the video news conference about the need for lawyers when they have problems with landlords and how landlords retaliated when they complained about bad housing conditions.

“When you are a tenant,” said Tiffany Ralph, who lives in Bolton Hill, “you are at the mercy of the landlord.”

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