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Deborah Jennings of East Baltimore has been taken to Rent Court multiple times this year. She says judges don't listen to renters' concerns about conditions, such as chipping paint (shown here). "I've only heard one judge ask a tenant to speak," she said. "They just always take the landlord's word."
Deborah Jennings of East Baltimore has been taken to Rent Court multiple times this year. She says judges don't listen to renters' concerns about conditions, such as chipping paint (shown here). "I've only heard one judge ask a tenant to speak," she said. "They just always take the landlord's word." (Luke Broadwater / Baltimore Sun)

Every year in Baltimore, more than 6,000 renters and their families are evicted from their homes — forced into court proceedings at a higher rate than any other major American city except Detroit, according to a new study from the Public Justice Center.

The evictions are ordered in Baltimore District Court from a docket known as "Rent Court" that largely favors landlords, the study concluded. The system often ignores poor conditions that would justify a tenant's decision to withhold payments, authors, including Dan Pascuiti of the Johns Hopkins University and Michele Cotton of the University of Baltimore, wrote.

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"Baltimore needs to answer its rent eviction crisis, and change to the Rent Court system should be a major component of that answer," the authors wrote. "The court is undeniably overrun by the pressure to collect for landlords. The resulting 6,000 to 7,000 rent evictions reflect our leaders' inattention to the state of the court system and the magnitude of crisis."

The study was conducted with the Right for Housing Alliance and funded by the Abell Foundation. It found that most renters facing eviction had legally justifiable grounds for withholding rent payments.

In a survey of about 300 renters facing eviction, 78 percent reported having one or more threats to health or safety existing in their home at the time they appeared at court. About 58 percent reported insect or rodent infestation, 41 percent reported flaking or peeling paint and 37 percent reported plumbing leaks, according to the study.

The survey results demonstrate that most Rent Court defendants have "good cause not to pay at least some portion of their rents," the authors concluded. But most defendants are not represented by a lawyer and do not realize they have a legal defense, the authors wrote.

Judge John P. Morrissey, chief judge of the Maryland District Court, said much of the report addresses issues outside of a judge's control. Judges cannot conduct their own investigations into tenant's property conditions, he said, and they cannot change state law to grant a longer waiting period before evictions.

"Our hands are tied as to the overall structure" of Rent Court, he said.

Morrissey said the court does provide access to free legal services for tenants who request such services, and court officials meet regularly with advocates for the poor about their concerns. "We're always looking to improve," he said.

The study described Rent Court defendants as among the "most vulnerable people in the city." Most are black women, living on less than $2,000 per month, without public housing assistance. The speed of the proceedings — scheduled just 5 to 10 days after a landlord complains of a nonpayment — leaves little time for a tenant to prepare a legal defense, the authors wrote.

Former District Administrative Judge Keith E. Matthews, who retired in 2010 after nearly 30 years on the bench, said the judicial system has worked to improve renters' treatment in court. Officials made services available from tenant advocates and eviction-prevention workers, he said, and arranged for a video on what tenants can do when faced with eviction.

"The court has really tried to work for the tenant," Matthews said.

Even so, he said, state laws make it quick and easy for a landlord to get an eviction compared with other states.

"Reform really needs to begin with legislature," he said. "Maryland is the easiest state to evict someone, because that's the way the laws are. If the rent is due on the first, on the second you can file for eviction. It's easy for a landlord to get an eviction. Other states make it hard."

One woman surveyed for the study, Deborah Jennings, 58, said she's ended up in Rent Court nearly every month this year. Jennings, who is disabled, said she struggles to pay the rent on the East Baltimore house where she, her daughter and granddaughter live.

Between her daughter's job at McDonald's and her disability payments, Jennings said, she has barely enough to afford the rent. She said judges in Rent Court haven't allowed her to present evidence of rundown conditions.

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"You get to Rent Court and they treat you like you're nothing," she said.

Jennings' property manager said the most efficient way to collect late rent payments is to take tenants to court.

"A lot of times, they say, 'I'll have it next week,'" said William Early, the property manager. "It's a business. You don't want to go two or three months before you get anything."

He disagreed that Rent Court is stacked in favor or landlords.

"The judge tells people what they can do if they need help," he said. "To me, it's a fair process. If there's something wrong, they can file papers and put the rent in escrow until the landlords fix stuff up."

The study comes more than a decade after the Abell Foundation reported similar findings in 2003. The authors argue that little has changed in the past 12 years due to a lack of political will. They urged political leaders to respond to hardships among Baltimore's renters as they did for people who lost their homes during the housing market crash of 2008.

The authors cited telephone hotlines, pre-foreclosure counseling and clear notices about the foreclosure process as examples of "lasting changes born of the mortgage foreclosure crisis."

"Baltimore has not seen that kind of response to the rent eviction crisis," the authors wrote. "The city needs it."

Lester Davis, a spokesman for City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young, said the report presents "troubling issues."

"He'll reach out to housing advocates and, where necessary, propose common sense solutions that will help protect vulnerable renters," Davis said.

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