A yearlong investigation by The Baltimore Sun found that the rent court system routinely works against tenants, while in many cases failing to hold landlords accountable for not meeting minimum housing standards.
A state and city lawmaker began drafting separate bills this week to make more publicly funded lawyers available for low-income tenants facing eviction in Baltimore, which spends more money ousting renters than trying to help them remain in their homes.
Del. Sandy Rosenberg and Baltimore City Councilman Robert Stokes, both Democrats, hope their efforts can generate momentum for an issue that has stalled in Maryland while gaining traction across the nation.
Stokes has drafted a ballot initiative that would ask city voters in next year's election to approve or reject the establishment of a "tenant legal assistance fund." And Rosenberg has asked Maryland's Department of Legislative Services to research how other cities and states are funding, or proposing to pay for, more lawyers for tenants.
The Baltimore Sun on Sunday detailed New York City's $77 million program to provide lawyers to tenants facing evictions and a pending $4.5 million funding increase in Washington, D.C., for the same purpose. Boston and Massachusetts lawmakers are considering a similar proposal, which has been shown in San Francisco to reduce the amount of public funds needed to operate homeless shelters.
In response to the story, Rosenberg said Sunday that he had asked Legislative Services Director Warren Deschenaux "to research how New York, Washington, San Francisco and Boston are paying for legal counsel for tenants in housing court or proposing to do so."
Maryland has studied the issue, known as the "civil right to counsel," numerous times over the past decade. Rosenberg served on a task force with other lawmakers, judges, landlords and tenant advocates that produced a 2014 report that found a "significant justice gap" in civil courts.
Some 340,000 people in Maryland cannot afford lawyers in civil court for cases that involve critical human needs such as shelter, child custody and domestic violence. Nearly 84 percent were in landlord-tenant actions, state records showed.
"Marylanders need meaningful access to civil legal representation," the task force reported.
Rosenberg said he wants to correct the "imbalance" in housing courts where landlords are almost always represented by counsel and tenants are not. He also wants to amend state law that allows landlords to be represented in court by someone other than a lawyer, while tenants are restricted to using an attorney or paralegal who is overseen by a lawyer in court.
Unable to afford an attorney, most tenants are unsuccessful at presenting evidence of poor living conditions that would allow them to lawfully withhold rent, several studies have shown.
"That means people are living in unsafe housing and going through the unsettling stress of eviction," Rosenberg said.
Children often pay the highest price by being forced to move from home to home, school to school, he said.
Landlord organizations support a right to counsel for tenants but not if property owners are forced to finance the effort by paying a state-imposed surcharge on eviction filings, as has been proposed before as a way to mitigate the costs of such a program.
Projected costs have dampened enthusiasm. The Maryland Access to Justice Commission had estimated that it could cost $92 million to provide publicly funded lawyers just in landlord-tenant actions.
Previous bills proposed by Rosenberg have gone nowhere. Legislation he introduced in the General Assembly last year would have created a $250,000 pilot program to provide lawyers in domestic violence protection cases in Harford and Prince George's counties. Both failed.
Last year, when she was still a state senator, Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh and Rosenberg co-sponsored a bill that would have established a "tenant legal assistance special fund," financed by a $30 fee charged to landlords when they filed for an eviction.
But Pugh and Rosenberg pulled the legislation and asked the Maryland Judiciary to establish a work group last summer to devise other solutions to rent court problems detailed in studies by the Public Justice Center and Maryland Legal Aid Bureau.
The group worked for nearly a year before introducing a measure during the 2017 assembly session that would have provided tenants with more ways to challenge evictions in rent court. But the measure failed, despite support from a major landlord organization, the Maryland Multi-Housing Association.
The group also produced a number of recommendations, including stating its support for the civil right to counsel as long as it paid for by public funds instead of the industry.
In April, The Baltimore Sun's "Dismissed" series of stories showed that landlords enjoy significant advantages over tenants in rent court. A Sun analysis of more than 5,500 tenant complaints of substandard housing between 2010 and last year showed that District Court judges routinely ruled in favor of landlords in disputes over living conditions, even when city inspectors confirmed serious threats to health, safety and well being of tenants.
In Baltimore, tens of thousands of low-income tenants filter through housing court each year to face off alone against landlords. The court issues some 70,000 eviction orders each year, leading to nearly 7,000 actual evictions.
Pugh said in response to the series that she supported expanding funding for legal services to low-income tenants but her new budget continues a years-long pattern of spending more to carry out evictions than to prevent them.
Baltimore spent $2.7 million in fiscal year 2016 for sheriff's deputies to oversee nearly 70,000 eviction orders, while allocating $1.3 million for services to prevent evictions or homelessness. The city reported preventing 108 evictions with funding to two nonprofits that provide lawyers to low-income tenants, Maryland Legal Aid Bureau and Public Justice Center.
But nearly all of the city's eviction prevention efforts are funded by state or federal funds while the sheriff's efforts are fully funded by the city, budget documents show.
"The mayor said she wants to allocate money to it but the budget has already been set this year," Stokes said Monday.
Stokes has drafted a bill that calls for establishing a "tenant legal assistance fund" that would be tied to a set funding stream.
It proposes amending the city charter to establish a revolving fund "to be used exclusively to assist low-income tenants with housing-related legal service," states a copy of the drafted bill provided to The Sun.
The money could be generated by a dedicated city appropriation, grants or donations to the fund and proceeds from fees and fines dedicated to the fund. The proceeds would be used to pay for lawyers who could help low-income tenants facing eviction and who are engaged in disputes with landlords. It also could pay for helping to educate tenants about their legal rights.
The amendment to the city charter to establish the special fund would be submitted to Baltimore voters as a ballot measure during the 2018 state elections.
The Maryland Judiciary has taken steps to address disparities in legal representation, a spokesman said.
Eviction, and the threat of eviction, weigh heavily on the lives of many of Baltimore's poorest tenants. They move from one ramshackle rental to the next, migrants in their own city, squeezed by rents that consume most of their meager incomes, intolerable housing conditions, a court system that advocates say is insufficiently responsive to their complaints, and a rate of eviction actions that is among the highest in the nation.
In addition to self-help centers, the judiciary is allowing the University of Baltimore to start a navigator program in Baltimore's District Court modeled after one in Brooklyn's housing court. It will provide volunteers to help tenants through the rent court process. The judiciary also awarded $88,500 to a nonprofit to start a volunteer lawyer program this summer.
City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young told The Sun last week that he is interested in pursuing a policy to help tenants obtain more legal assistance.
"We have to figure where the money is going to come from," Young said.