Peeling paint, rodent infestations, and leaky plumbing are legally justifiable grounds for tenants to withhold rent payments in the city of Baltimore. But every year, more than 6,000 of the city’s low-income renters and their families are evicted from their homes by the city’s landlord-favoring Rent Court, an eviction rate higher than any other major U.S. city except Detroit, the Baltimore Sun reported Monday.
The Charm City's eviction rate emerged from a study by the local Public Justice Center and the Right for Housing Alliance, in which 300 renters facing eviction were interviewed. Among them, 78 percent reported having one or more health or safety threats existing in their homes at the time of their eviction hearing, according to the study.
Nearly 60 percent reported insect or rodent problems, 41 percent reported lead poisoning concerns from chipping paint, and 37 percent reported plumbing leaks. While these are good reasons to withhold all or some portion of the monthly rent, most renters who are brought to court by their landlords are not represented by lawyers and are unaware that they have a legal defense, authors of the study said.
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"Baltimore needs to answer its rent eviction crisis, and change to the Rent Court system should be a major component of that answer," the authors stated in their report. "The court is undeniably overrun by the pressure to collect for landlords,” added the authors, who include Dan Pascuiti of the Johns Hopkins University and Michele Cotton of the University of Baltimore. “The resulting 6,000 to 7,000 rent evictions reflect our leaders' inattention to the state of the court system and the magnitude of crisis."
Most of those evicted are black women with less than $2,000 per month in income, and many are without public housing assistance, according to the report. But the speed of the Rent Court proceedings, typically scheduled 5 to 10 days after a landlord files a nonpayment complaint, leaves little or no time for tenants to mount a legal defense, the authors stated.
The city’s District Administrative Court, which handles landlord-tenant cases, has worked to improve renters’ treatment, former judge Keith Matthews told the Baltimore Sun. That effort included hiring eviction-prevention workers and producing a video on what tenants should do if they face an eviction.
But state lawmakers have a role to play in making the system better, Matthews said. "Maryland is the easiest state to evict someone, because that's the way the laws are,” he said. “If the rent is due on the first, on the second you can file for eviction. It's easy for a landlord to get an eviction. Other states make it hard."