Seeking to use the courts to force Baltimore landlords to repair and improve properties, a group of community activists rallied outside the District Court at 501 E. Fayette St. yesterday to push a citywide rent strike.
The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN, is offering tenants assistance in filing rent-escrow cases. Under that process, the court allows a tenant to place rent payments in an escrow account at a bank until the landlord fixes the problem.
"The rent court is a collection agency for landlords," said Derrick Jessup, the group's lead organizer for Baltimore. "We're going to use that same collection agency to help force landlords to make repairs if they want to get paid."
But an organization that represents city property owners warned yesterday that renters who aren't careful could find themselves being evicted.
Renters taking such an action is an aggressive way to get a landlord's attention, said Thomas C. Shaner, the executive director of the Property Owners Association of Greater Baltimore.
"Of course, any consumer of any product should exercise their rights," he said. "But they need to be careful when trying to execute legal maneuvers that they fully understand the legal maneuvers."
For example, tenants must go through all the proper legal channels, and have the money available to place into an escrow account. "It's not a way of avoiding paying rent," Shaner warned.
ACORN argues that Baltimore landlords are very successful in filing cases against tenants who miss rent payments, but are routinely let off the hook for problems such as high levels of lead, rodent infestations, chipping paint and other issues.
A 2003 Abell Foundation report found that Baltimore had the highest eviction rate in the country, and that landlords had brought more complaints against tenants than the number of tenants themselves.
For weeks, ACORN has been pushing the rent strike through posters and banners displayed across the city. The group's leaders said they hope to get at least 200 cases filed by the end of June.
Nancy Maiga, 37, said her apartment was infested with insects, had chipping paint and lacked hot water. After four months, she decided to take her landlord to court. A day before the hearing, however, the landlord called and wanted to help.
"Talking to them won't work," said Maiga, who lives in Northwood. "If I get the court behind me, it'll work."
Through her work with ACORN, Maiga is now a certified lead tester, and was passing out fliers during yesterday's rally offering to give free lead tests to city residents. "Let's stop the lead from affecting the ones we love," the flier said.