Eviction courts could take on a greater role in the decades-long effort to prevent lead poisoning under a pending bill in the Maryland Senate that would allow judges to toss out eviction requests from landlords who can’t prove their properties are safe from the hazardous paint.
Current law does not allow judges to dismiss eviction requests based on allegations that landlords may not have properly inspected and registered properties as required under the state’s program to reduce lead paint risk in housing. More than 4,900 children in Maryland have been diagnosed with lead poisoning in the past decade.
The proposed measure, which passed the House of Delegates in a similar form, would grant judges the power to dismiss or delay eviction proceedings based on evidence that landlords may not be in compliance with lead paint rules.
“This bill removes the restriction that judges can’t hear evidence about the owners’ compliance,” said Ruth Ann Norton, a longtime advocate on lead-poisoning issues and CEO of the Green & Healthy Homes Initiative. “It gives judges clear authority.”
The state’s largest landlord group, the Maryland Multi-Housing Association, opposes the shift but says it would support the measure if the Maryland Department of the Environment’s databases for lead poisoning inspections and housing registration were reliable, public and searchable.
“We would be fine with the bill if the databases were accessible on the internet,” said Adam Skolnik, executive director of the landlord association.
State audits have found that the state agency’s property registrations, inspections and enforcement actions are all logged in different databases that cannot easily be cross-checked. A Baltimore Sun investigation in 2015 found that the online registry of lead-affected addresses has contained serious flaws that caused thousands of properties to drop off the list without explanation, allowing landlords to continue renting them without worry.
Tenant and health advocates say the argument is a distraction from what they see as the real issue: If landlords are supposed to be forbidden to rent unregistered, unlicensed properties, they should also be barred from evicting tenants living in those unlawful rentals.
They say rent courts across Maryland are a fertile venue for spotting owners of the nearly 530,000 houses built before 1978 that Norton’s group estimates could still contain serious lead hazards. That’s because landlords file 637,000 complaints of unpaid rent against tenants each year.
It’s a speedy justice system that in Baltimore alone processed 142,000 cases last year, resulting in 7,427 evictions. The expedited process allows judges only enough time to determine if tenants owe the rent, approve payment agreements, transfer the case to a different court focused on living conditions or order an eviction.
Recent studies of the process by the Public Justice Center and Maryland Legal Aid showed that landlords frequently prevailed in eviction proceedings even when their properties failed to adhere to the lead paint rules. An investigation by The Sun published last year found that judges routinely ruled in favor of landlords in tenant complaints of substandard living conditions even in homes that inspectors had deemed uninhabitable.
The Public Justice Center showed that 79 percent of landlords during the period it studied in Baltimore failed to provide valid lead compliance information. Judges either delayed the cases to give landlords time to get into compliance or allowed cases to move forward, the tenant advocacy organization found.
“These practices provide incentive to bad actors to take the gamble and see if they can get away with using the courts without having complied with the lead law,” the Public Justice Center wrote in testimony supporting the bill. “This lets illegally operating landlords get what they want — the rent — without having to follow the Lead Law.”
Maryland Legal Aid’s statewide analysis found that in 11 percent of cases it studied in 2012 judges ruled in favor of landlords who did not submit valid certificate numbers even though their properties required them to do so.
Following publication of the two studies, the Maryland Judiciary authorized a panel to devise ways to reform the process. The group of landlords, tenant advocates, judges and law professors agreed to several compromise measures, including the one now pending in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.
The same committee killed the measure last year despite support from both landlords and tenant advocates.
This year the two groups are back where they typically stand: on opposite sides.
Sen. Bobby Zirkin, the Baltimore County Democrat who chairs the committee, referred questions to his vice chair and fellow county Democrat, Sen. Delores G. Kelley.
“I’m going to do everything I can” to pass the Senate version, said Kelley. “You’re dealing with situations where there may be lead risk and these landlords haven’t met their duty to deal with that.”
There is one major difference between the bill that passed the House and the measure pending in the Senate.
The House bill said judges “may” dismiss eviction complaints filed by landlords who are not in compliance with lead rules; the Senate bill would require judges to dismiss the complaints, as low-income housing advocates prefer.
This article has been updated to state that Sen. Delores G. Kelley’s district is entirely in Baltimore County.