Sharon Bell, her husband, and her three teenage children couldn’t even safely walk up the steps to their Baltimore apartment because the staircase was in disrepair. “The last step as you climb up, you had to take a giant step over,” she said. There were water leaks in the bathroom. The roof leaked thanks to a problem with the gutter.
But the landlord either refused to fix the problems or didn’t spend enough to actually get rid of them. He also failed to get the correct permits and inspections for problems like lead paint. So the Bells called upon their legal right in response: rather than keep shelling out rent each month to a landlord who refused to make their apartment habitable, they started putting the rent into an escrow account until the repairs were made. “We kept paying and nothing was getting done, so we decided to hold the rent,” she said. “You don’t want to live in deplorable conditions for what you’re paying.”
But rather than act to fix the building, their landlord took them to rent court.
It’s a common outcome in the city. As a new report from civil legal aid group Public Justice Center outlines, Baltimore’s “rent court” processes 150,000 landlord-tenant cases a year, more than half of all of the filings in its District Court system. That averages out to more than 600 rent complaints a day.
And it’s a trying experience. Bell had “the fear of being out on the street, in the meantime you’re going through litigation and you just don’t know the outcome of it,” she said. The landlord “is intimidating you because you don’t know if you’re going to be put out [on the street] or not.”
She didn’t get much better treatment from the judges. “The judges were not favorable to the renter,” she noted. “Twice [a judge] asked us, ‘Well why didn’t you just move?’” But with three children at home and limited financial resources, moving was not an option. “It’s easy for you to say to move, but it takes time to move… It costs a lot of money to move, thousands of dollars.”
But she didn’t see her landlord get the same treatment. “Who’s leaning on the landlord to make these conditions livable?”
A huge number of these cases end up in eviction. Every year, 6,000 to 7,000 Baltimore City renters are judicially evicted for not paying rent. The city’s rent court processes about 70,000 warrants to enforce eviction a year. The rent eviction rate is so high — 5.52 evictions per every 100 renters — that it was even higher than the number of foreclosure filings in the wake of the recession. The city ranks second only to Detroit in the percentage of renters under threat of eviction over rent.
Bell and her family were lucky enough to avoid that fate thanks to support from the Right to Housing Alliance. But she knows that without that legal help, things could have turned out differently. “It is really, truly hard to navigate it on your own,” she said. “If you don’t know the law, then it’s hard to fight… And a lot of people are not knowledgeable. We’re not lawyers, and you’re not knowledgeable about codes and what has to happen.”
Nearly all of the actions are brought by landlords, and the most common one is trying to evict a tenant for allegedly failing to pay the rent. The landlord’s path is relatively smooth. As a former district court administrative judge once put it, “It’s easier to evict someone in Baltimore City than almost anywhere else in the country.” The form a landlord fills out to submit a complaint consists of just ten prompts on one single-sided page without any requirements for other documentation. And in surveys of nearly 300 renter defendants and their cases, the Public Justice Center found that many landlords didn’t fully fill the form out.
Landlords also don’t have to wait to claim that rent isn’t being paid — they can file as early as the first day rent is due and don’t have to have given the renter any prior demand or notice. Things can move pretty quickly after that. Trials are often scheduled just seven to ten days after a filing, very little time for a renter to submit a defense, get legal representation, or go into the discovery process to review the landlord’s evidence. A warrant for eviction can come just days after that, and eviction day often takes place just six to seven weeks after a landlord files a complaint. “As the court pursues efficiencies to handle the flood of landlord litigation, it diverts and defangs tenant protections,” the report says.
That system is coupled with renters who come in with very little support. Half of the defendants that the Public Justice Center surveyed knew nothing about their main rights and defenses — only 10 percent were fully knowledgable. All of those surveyed came to court without a legal representative, but most landlords have someone by their side. And almost half of the renters had no prior experience with the rent court.
Many people in Baltimore end up in Bell’s situation, paying rent to a landlord who doesn’t maintain a liveable building. Nearly 80 percent of the people the group survyed were living in a building with at least one threat to health or safety, including nearly 60 perent with an insect or rodent infestation, nearly 40 percent with a plumbing leak, 36 percent with mold, about 30 percent with roof leaks, just over 20 percent without heat or hot water, and about just under 20 percent with flooding.
More than 70 percent of those surveyed had notified their landlords about these problems before their trial dates and at least 57 percent had good cause not to pay at least some of their rent. Yet nearly three-quarters said they didn’t know they could raise a defense based on these housing defects. More than 85 percent didn’t know they had the right to rent abatement and nearly 60 percent were in the dark about the option Bell chose — to pay rent into an escrow account. Meanwhile few of them even got a chance to defend themselves, as just a third ended up contesting their cases before a judge, and half of those who did weren’t granted their defense based on the conditions of their building.
These problems are falling on the most vulnerable city residents. The survey revealed that three-quarters of the people going to rent court as defendants made $2,000 a month or less, yet more than half were paying monthly rent of $750 or more. Half received some form of public assistance, although very few were getting housing subsidies. About two-thirds had a young child in their home. And nearly 80 percent of defendants are black women, even though they make up just 34 percent of the city’s population.
It’s part of a widespread problem: over half of Baltimore renters spend more than what’s considered affordable on rent, with one in four across the Baltimore metro area spending half or more of their income on housing. And among those in the city who are paying more than they can afford in rent, there are nearly three eviction cases per household. It’s only likely to get worse: rents have risen 16 percent over the last five years and there is a 30,000 unit shortage of affordable housing, up from 20,000 in previous decades.
While Bell was never evicted, after nearly ten years in her apartment she had had enough. She and her husband eventually moved out and bought their own home. “I went through so much litigation that year it was just overwhelming, very overwhelming,” she said.
Reflecting on the whole experience, she sighed, saying, “Boy, I would not wish that on anyone.”