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Leveling the playing field in rent court

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.

We have no doubt that Baltimore has its share of good landlords and slumlords, along with model tenants and those who shirk rent and damage their apartments and rental homes. The judges involved in hearing disputes between landlords and tenants are no doubt right that every case is different and extenuating circumstances in each one matter.

But when you've got a system in which landlords win about 90 percent of the time, it's clear there's something wrong.

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A year-long investigation by The Sun's Doug Donovan and Jean Marbella, aided by a first-ever comprehensive review of rent court records data, found that a system initially designed to protect tenants from unsafe living conditions instead is heavily tilted in favor of the landlords.

The main tool tenants have to enforce landlords' legal requirement to provide a habitable abode is to convince a judge to set up an escrow account to collect their rent until repairs are made. Not only did judges do that in fewer than half the cases in which they could have, but at the end of the day, landlords got back 89 percent of the money. Rent was reduced or waived in just 6 percent of cases.

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As stark as that disparity is, there are ways to ameliorate it. Officials in the courts and legislature have taken some steps, but much more needs to be done.

Tenants, who tend to be poor, are rarely represented by lawyers, whereas landlords frequently are. Moreover, court rules prohibit tenants from being represented by knowledgeable non-attorney (or non-law student) advocates, but landlords can be represented by non-attorney property managers. Consequently, one side in these hearings typically knows the process and the law a lot better than the other. That clearly has to change.

Renters frequently withhold rent on their own in an effort to pressure landlords into repairing sub-standard conditions, but when they do go to rent court, that can put them in a disadvantageous position with the judge. Typically, judges require renters to pay back rent before they will hear a complaint about housing conditions, but the reverse is not true; they do not require landlords to prove they have been providing a habitable home before hearing a complaint about overdue rent. The state's judiciary needs to make clear that such a double standard is unacceptable.

Following a study spearheaded by Mayor Catherine Pugh when she was in the state Senate, Del. Samuel I. "Sandy" Rosenberg of Baltimore introduced a bill this year to protect tenants from eviction when landlords fail to meet certain safety standards. Under the legislation, a landlord would have to demonstrate that he or she had followed laws related to lead-contaminated property (or made a good faith effort to do so). The bill lengthens the amount of time between a landlord's filing of a complaint and the tenant's court date from a minimum of five days to 14, it expands the ability of either party to adjourn court proceedings to procure evidence, and makes other reforms. It passed the House of Delegates 97-42 but was killed in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. It needs to be resurrected next year.

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As a matter separate from the rent court process, Baltimore needs to step up its code inspections of rental properties. It needs to make sure properties that inspectors deem uninhabitable are not, in fact, being rented, and it needs to be aggressive in fining landlords who do not comply. Complicating the issue is the fact that the largest recipient of complaints is the Housing Authority of Baltimore City. The inherent conflict that poses has for years been exacerbated by the combination of the Housing Authority and the city agency that manages inspections under a single director. Mayor Pugh has wisely committed to splitting those functions apart.

Information asymmetry is a major problem for tenants. Court forms are often written in language that is difficult to understand, and renters' knowledge of the process is often limited to a video played on a continuous loop in the courthouse. Maryland should develop and distribute plain-English materials that clearly outline the rights and responsibilities of both parties in a rental contract and the avenues for resolving disputes. Mr. Donovan, Ms. Marbella and The Sun's interactive design staff managed to create an easy-to-follow explanation of the process for the web version of their article; surely the state can do the same in a brochure.

Finally, the judiciary needs to analyze its own practices and open the doors for the public to do so as well. Mr. Donovan and Ms. Marbella were only able to provide a quantitative look at rent court because the Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service has rebuilt the information in the state's case records website into a usable database, and the paper, with the support of a grant from the Solutions Journalism Network, was able to hire an expert to analyze the 5,511 rent escrow cases filed in city District Court from 2010-2016. They had to go to so much trouble because the courts don't keep their data in a format that allows it to be analyzed, even by the judiciary. That has to change.

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