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Attorney General: Maryland eviction process ‘unfair to tenants’ | COMMENTARY

Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh in a file image.
Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh in a file image. (Baltimore Sun/Baltimore Sun/TNS)

Many of us take it for granted: Whatever our challenges, we have a place we call home; we give little thought to losing it. But thousands of Marylanders have no such peace of mind. They live a recurring nightmare: The eviction summons posted on the door. The order to appear in court. A frantic scramble for rent delayed after unexpected medical bills. Late fees and court costs. The relief of scraping by this time. A few months reprieve. Then, repeat — the cycle begins again.

Over 660,000 eviction cases are filed each year in Maryland. The filing rate in some counties is over 100%, meaning more eviction actions are brought than there are homes for rent. Baltimore City has 125,000 rental units, but roughly 140,000 eviction cases per year. About 6,500 result in removal. Why the discrepancy, and what happens to all the other cases?

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The answer is that landlords, particularly large corporate property owners, increasingly use eviction filings not to displace tenants, but rather to collect rent. The expense of vacancies, repairs and finding new renters is greater than filing actions to put pressure on existing tenants. As one study describes, property managers consider eviction filings “easy, cheap, and part of the rent collection process.” Landlords may even profit by charging late fees and passing on costs to tenants. Filings result in an estimated $180 in fines and fees, or 20% of monthly housing costs for the average rental household.

In most states, eviction begins with notice to the tenant. Tenants then have a chance to seek rental assistance, work out payment plans or find other housing before the hammer of judicial process falls. But in Maryland, the first step is an eviction filing in court. The landlord’s cost of filing is $15, one of the lowest nationwide. Some states impose fees over $300; the average is $122. Filing for eviction in Maryland costs landlords virtually nothing, and too many take advantage of the process.

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The landlord’s calculus is simple. Why rely on traditional methods of rent collection when the weight and resources of the judiciary can be invoked so easily instead? Eighty-four percent of Baltimore City eviction actions are filed with only one month’s rent due. Worse, many landlords file as soon as tenants are a few days late. This practice has made courts “more like an extension of the residential rental business than an impartial arbitrator between landlords and tenants,” according to one academic study on the issue.

Maryland’s low barriers for filing eviction actions make it an outlier. Eviction filing rates in neighboring states range from 5.3% in Pennsylvania to 16.9% in Delaware. Rates in New Jersey, the District of Columbia and Virginia range from 12.5% to 15.7%. Maryland’s rate in excess of 80% dwarfs them all.

Our eviction process is out of balance and unfair to tenants. I intend to ask Maryland lawmakers to increase our eviction filing fee to at least the national average of $120. We should also make landlords provide notice of their intent to evict before deploying the machinery of judicial process. We must preserve the judiciary’s appropriate role in adjudicating legitimate eviction cases. But eviction actions should not be used to turn our court system into a debt collection agency for landlords.

Eviction is not simply a condition of poverty. Rather, it’s a root cause, perpetuating a cycle that can last for generations. It means loss, not just of a home, but also of possessions, school, community, employment, mental and physical health, and the ability to find another place to live.

Serial eviction filings launch this pernicious process at the first sign of late payment. They create an ever-looming threat, like eviction itself, that inflicts long-lasting harms on health, family unity, job retention and future housing options.

As with so much else — both pre-pandemic and with COVID-19′s ongoing toll — the brunt of this subsidized rent collection practice falls more heavily on communities of color. Greater percentages of Baltimore’s Black and Hispanic households are severely house-burdened, paying more than 50% of their income for housing. This albatross makes them more vulnerable to serial eviction filings and eventual loss of their homes. In Baltimore, the number of Black household eviction removals is three times that of whites. Eviction rates of families headed by Black men are 51% higher than those of their white counterparts. Among the laws and policies that perpetuate systemic racism and cycles of poverty, allowing landlords to hijack the state’s judicial process for rent collection ranks high.

Forced displacement disrupts lives in profound and irrevocable ways. Its harms fall disproportionately on those least able to weather them. As one writer captures the impact of eviction, “without stable shelter, everything else falls apart.” We must do more to help Maryland families keep things together.

Brian E. Frosh (Twitter: @BrianFrosh) is the attorney general of Maryland.

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