On Friday, June 28th, a demonstration of Right to Housing Alliance members and supporters from Word on the Street, Housing Our Neighbors, and more on the steps of Baltimore District Court yielded major success inside the courtroom.
Property manager, Sage Management had once again filed complaints for over 150 of their tenants for non-payment of rent. While Sage is quick to drag tenants to court each month to collect rent, they are slow to address safety and habitability concerns in the properties they are supposed to maintain. While Maryland law offers options for tenants to raise these habitability issues as defense for non-payment in court, these options–such as rent escrow–are seldom granted by judges. Where then, are tenants to get justice?
Right to Housing Alliance members Detrese Dowridge and Whitney Green issued statements on the steps of the courthouse to a crowd of supporters regarding their treatment by Sage Management. Detrese, after standing up for herself in court last month to challenge predatory fees charged by Sage, was issued a notice to vacate her apartment. Detrese spoke about this, and about the conditions issues that have been ignored by Sage after numerous requests for remedy. Mr. Green addressed the crowd about the fact that despite paying his rent on time, Sage Management continues to take him to court each month. Despite Mr. Green providing proof of payment, Sage’s irresponsible accounting practices place a burden and take a toll each month as Mr. Green fears eviction.
Right to Housing Alliance member, Sharon Bell, spoke of the challenges she has faced trying to get justice at Rent Court. She has had two rent escrow hearings so far, with a third next week, still with no remedy and no escrow case granted. Jason Rodriguez spoke about his recent unsuccessful attempt to win rent escrow against a landlord that has left his property in extreme disrepair, and moved to evict the Rodriguez family in retaliation for pressure to correct the hazardous conditions. No tenant should have to go through so much to get justice that they deserve.
Mark Schumann of HON, also a board member of Healthcare for the Homeless, a member of B’more Housing for All, and the Faces of Homelessness Speaker’s Bureau, James Crawford Jr., also of Housing Our Neighbors, and Chairman of B’more Housing for All, and Sean “Shaka” Riley of Word on the Street, Housing Our Neighbors, and the Faces of Homelessness Speakers Bureau also spoke on their experiences of homelessness, and how the crisis in rental court is driving the numbers of people experiences homelessness in Baltimore.
After the demonstration, supporters joined tenants inside the courtroom for their non-payment hearings. Not all of our members’ cases were dismissed, but all of them were successful in that they held the court and the property manager accountable. The combination of public pressure outside the courtroom and Right to Housing Alliance members armed with their rights inside the courtroom led to major victories!
Ms. Dowridge was brought in to court again for non-payment. Represented by attorneys from the Public Justice Center, Detrese had the amount sought in the complaint reduced to $698 on showing that she had paid May rent and late fee. Sage had also issued a “request for foreclosure on right of redemption,” listing the four previous judgements required to do so. As the attorneys from PJC pointed out, this was premature due to Sage’s inclusion of a dismissed case as one of the requisite four prior judgments. The judge awarded a judgement for Sage for rent owed in June, but the move to evict Detrese was not successful. Afterwards, outside the court room, Sage Management owner Gil Horwitz told Ms. Dowridge that he plans to evict her eventually and that “this clearly isn’t working,” with a gesture noting the RTHA’s presence. These kinds of threats against tenants standing up to demand treatment with dignity is in direct opposition to their human right to peace and dignity. Detrese is not giving up, and Right to Housing Alliance will support her no matter what move Sage makes to evict her.
Due to serious conditions issues in her apartment, Pamela Ross was interested in putting her rent in escrow. However, she could not come up with the $28 fee to file an affirmative rent escrow complaint and, instead, planned to seek rent escrow defensively, which is allowed in Maryland. In her non-payment hearing, she disputed the amount sought by Sage on basis of conditions in the property. J. Gordon asked for proof that written notice to Sage had been made by certified mail. Ross produced her written letter and certified mail receipt. Although J. Gordon noted on the record that the letter was sent June 6, she found that Ross had not provided Sage a reasonable period of time to correct problems described in the notice. J. Gordon’s interpretation of the statute equires at least 30 days for notice. Ms. Ross countered that she had provided notice previous to the writing and that a city inspector had already come to the unit. J. Gordon reasoned that notice not made in writing by certified mail was insufficient under the rent escrow statute and that only inspectors conducting a court-ordered inspection could testify as to severe threats to health and safety. Judgment for possession/June rent was entered in favor of Sage, and Pamela’s escrow was not granted.
Ms. Kess was concerned about Sage’s inclusion of water bills as rent. Although her lease did not specify that water bills are charged as additional rent, Sage filed a June complaint seeking over $600 allegedly attributed to water billing. In court, Ms. Kess showed her ledger proving that she had already paid rent for June and explained that the complaint before the judge was seeking payment for water bills. J. Gordon asked Sage to produce a breakdown of the amount it was seeking on the complaint. When Sage could not produce such evidence, J. Gordon dismissed the case. Sage countered that Ms. Kess has brought a copy of her ledger with her to the proceeding; nonetheless, J. Gordon reasoned that Kess did not have the burden of proving the Sage’s case.
Ms. Tindale disputed the amount sought by Sage for June. She argued to the judge that Sage had noted a credit on her ledger in February 2013 and told her that she did not need to tender February rent. Tindale further explained that Sage later entered the February rent as an arrearage, causing her to be behind by one month’s rent ever since. Although Ms. Tindale presented evidence showing that the credit had existed at the end of January 2013, the court relied on Sage’s testimony, which was to explain that Sage had neglected to charge Tindale a security deposit and that the credit was absorbed by the security deposit amount. J. Gordon reasoned that although Tindale had tendered a payment for June, “from an accounting standpoint [it] would go to pay off the balance.” On that basis, the court entered judgment for Sage. Again, Sage was not able to provide a ledger or proof of their accounting.
Mr. Green went to court to answer Sage’s complaint for June rent and late fee. Green paid June rent timely on June 5; nonetheless, Sage filed a complaint on June 13. When Green alerted Sage to the fact that he had already paid the rent sought in the complaint, he was told that even if he didn’t owe for June, he owed for other months. Green pressed Sage to show which months he owed, to no avail. In court, Green disputed the complaint, showing the judge his receipt. J. Gordon asked Sage to produce counter-evidence. When Sage had no documentation to proffer, the complaint was dismissed.
Ms. Robinson consulted with a PJC attorney about her rent complaint and learned that although her original lease, specifying monthly rent of $650, had automatically renewed, Sage had been charging her $675 for several months. In court, Ms. Robinson stated that her lease should never have been raised and disputed the amount Sage was seeking for June and previous months. Sage countered that it had issued to Robinson a written notice 60 days prior to the auto-renewal date informing her of the change in terms. On J. Gordon’s request for evidence of such a notice, Sage could produce none and was not permitted to testify further on the issue. The judge reduced the amount sought by $105.00. At this point, Sage requested that the $105.00 be construed by the court as owing for other charges on Ms. Robinson’s balance. J. Gordon denied this request, stating that she can make determinations only on amounts specified in the plaintiff’s complaint. The lowered amount was entered in the judgment.
Though not all of these cases were court victories, we count any instance of Right to Housing Alliance members standing up for themselves and their neighbors as a huge success!