When Baltimore prohibited landlords from tossing evicted tenants' belongings onto sidewalks last fall, the city anticipated cleaner neighborhoods, less work for its crews and a big savings for taxpayers.
But the ordinance, which took years to win approval, might be causing a less predictable shift in the rental market: Early data suggest that in addition to reducing the amount of unsightly personal property dumped on streets, the law is cutting down on the number of evictions.
In the five months since the law took effect, evictions have fallen 25 percent - from 2,723 to 2,050 - compared with the corresponding period a year before, according to city statistics. And when sheriffs show up to evict, they are almost twice as likely to find an empty apartment.
Many factors could be behind the decline, and those who support the ordinance caution that the data cover such a short period that they might not be reliable. But they say many of the new procedures encourage tenants to pay their back rent and stay, or move out on their own.
"We were surprised it was as dramatic a change as it was - surprised and pleased - but we had hoped it would have that effect," Suzanne Sangree, a chief solicitor in the city's law department, said of the reduction in evictions.
After years of struggling with different versions of the legislation, the City Council approved in August a bill that prohibited landlords from throwing their tenants' personal belongings onto the right of way, a practice that had become commonplace in Baltimore. Mayor Sheila Dixon helped push the bill through, and she signed it that month.
Since then, the number of times Department of Public Works crews have been called to pick up personal property has fallen from about 580 a month to three in January and none in February, according to DPW statistics. If that continues, it will save the city about $800,000 a year.
The new ordinance also changed the way tenants must be notified of an impending eviction. Many think those changes have prompted the reduction in evictions.
Previously, after a landlord got approval from a judge to remove a tenant, the landlord would call the sheriff's office to schedule the eviction. Although the court would notify tenants that an eviction was imminent, they were not told the date when the sheriff would arrive.
The new ordinance requires landlords to inform tenants of the date and to send that notice three times, by two different forms of mail, 14 days before an eviction and, a week before, with a posting on the property. City officials said that providing a firm deadline gives tenants time to plan whether to move their belongings or pay their rent.
"Ultimately, the concept here is to give the tenants enough notice of when the sheriff is actually going to schedule this so they can exercise their rights to redeem and salvage their tenancy," said Katherine Kelly Howard, legislative committee chairwoman of the Maryland Multi-Housing Association.
"No landlord wants to evict a tenant to begin with," she said.
The city sheriff's office keeps track of the number of tenants who are present when officers arrive for evictions. From October through February, the number was 38 percent lower than in the corresponding period a year before.
The Dixon administration is expected to introduce legislation in the City Council today that would require similar notification procedures when a mortgage is foreclosed. People living in a foreclosed home are not covered under the current law, officials said.
"The eviction chattel bill was intended to reduce the negative consequences for everyone when evictions have to take place," Dixon spokesman Sterling Clifford said. "If home foreclosures are going to continue to be an issue, it will present the same challenge as evictions, and we should address it the same way."
Former City Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr. was the lead sponsor of the eviction chattel bill and became its chief spokesman. He said he was prompted to act after driving home from City Hall one evening and watching cars weaving around property that had been tossed onto York Road.
"I'm proud that the council passed it because we're seeing the fruits of our labor," Harris said. "We wanted the communication to take place between the tenant and the landlord."