A new study released Monday, December 7th titled “Justice Diverted: How Renters are Processed in the Baltimore City Rent Court”, examines court practices and paints a grim picture of a court riddled with systemic barriers to justice for renters.
The year-long study conducted by the Public Justice Center and Right to Housing Alliance and published by the Abell Foundation surveyed 300 renters about their experiences, compared court documents, analyzed records from Maryland Department of the Environment and Baltimore Housing in order to identify ways in which renters are diverted away from justice in Baltimore City Rent Court.
7,000 Families Campaign
Baltimore is a city of renters.
More than half of households in the city rent their housing. Half of us who rent are paying more than 30% of our income to pay for housing, and one in four of us are paying more than half of our income just to keep a roof over our heads.
We have some of the least affordable rental housing in the country according to median income, and for many of us, safe, affordable housing is out of reach. The housing that is available to us at a price we can barely afford is often riddled with habitability issues: mold, pests, lack of heat or hot water, leaking pipes, faulty wiring.
Each year, 150,000 Baltimore families struggling to afford safe housing—overwhelmingly black women—are summoned to walk through “the eviction pipeline” at Baltimore City rent court, and as many as 7,000 of those families are ultimately evicted.
4 out of 5 renters coming to Rent Court have serious defects in our housing, but many landlords would prefer to keep their costs low rather than ensure our health and safety by making necessary repairs. We have the right to get these conditions remedied, but court customs and efficiencies divert us from justice at every turn in the process…
While 57% of us had valid legal reason to not pay the rent based on conditions of our housing, only 8% were able to present a case to the judge. So, what’s diverting renters away from justice that we deserve?
We are Diverted:
… from the courthouse
- Landlords file lawsuits against us one day after rent is due and we end up in court a week later. There is almost no time for us to seek out lawyers, or prepare a case to defend ourselves, or even get the time off work or find childcare.
- Almost half of us didn’t receive proper notice of our trials.
- Most of us don’t even make it to the courthouse for our hearings.
- … from the courtroom
- Landlord agents or court staff pressure us to negotiate in the hallway before our trials, with many of us believing we are legally obligated to do so. 1/3 of us never make it into the courtroom to defend ourselves. If we do, and we have any dispute, we are told to go again, to negotiate in the hallway, instead of having the facts heard by the judge.
- … from defending ourselves
- For those of us who actually make it in front of a judge, 73% of us don’t know that we’re even allowed to defend ourselves by bringing up the conditions of our housing or that we can have rent reduced because of them.
- Many of us never even attempt to defend ourselves even when we do know our rights, because the judges tell us the only issue at hand is whether rent is paid.
- 79% of landlords either refused to offer proof of lead risk reduction, or gave a false license number on the court forms. Landlords are rarely asked to back up their claims for rent due, by presenting leases or account statements, or their right to use the court by presenting proof of proper licensing and registration.
- Even if we bring up these issues, we’re told that this court can’t do anything about it.
The court is very efficient at collecting debt and evicting renters. But we can’t sacrifice justice for the sake of efficiency. Demanding that the court hold up standards of justice and dignity will allow us to wage a real fight for renters’ human rights!
So, how do we fix this?
First and foremost, we need to strengthen and grow the movement for safe, adequate, affordable housing FOR ALL, through raising awareness of the issues renters are facing every day. We need to meet with community residents and leaders at our churches, schools, community centers, recreation centers and spread the word!
We need to build up our power in the communities to make rent court a place of Justice and Dignity and keep those 7,000 families in their homes!
- Help Renters Navigate the Process– Lawyers and advocates, as well as access to information will help renters understand the court process and their rights. Level the playing field
- Talk First; Sue Later – A 14 day pre-filing notice period will give us one more pay check to get the rent together, which is often all we need, and will ease the number of cases in court so judges have time to listen to renters’ concerns.
- Make Landlords Accountable – Landlords should be required to back up their claims with evidence, and hold up their end of the housing bargain. Mandate Annual Health and Safety Inspections for ALL Rental Housing – all Baltimore renters deserve safe housing, whether they are living in a rowhome, apartment, townhome, or house. Landlords should ensure the safety of all of their properties
- Fund Eviction Prevention Services – Provide a safety net for the most vulnerable renters from eviction.
Together we can stop the Eviction Pipeline and transform Baltimore City Rent Court to value justice and dignity for renters!