Tenants at a Disadvantage in Baltimore City Rent Court

A yearlong investigation of Baltimore City’s rent court by the Baltimore Sun reveals an unjust system where tenants are routinely denied their due process rights. Setup roughly 70 years ago, Baltimore City’s rent court was designed to protect tenants. Thanks in large part to the work of organizations like CPHA, Baltimoreans became aware of the unjust slum living conditions of their fellow citizens. Rent court was set up as a way to ensure landlords would be held accountable for living conditions of their tenants. Later on, the state allowed tenants to put their rent in escrow if their units were not up to code.

However, over time rent court became little more than a collection agency for landlords. A computer analysis by the Baltimore Sun of rent court complaints filed by tenants between 2010 and November 2016 found that judges routinely favor landlords. The Sun also found that judges did not always establish escrow accounts when housing inspectors found violations that were a threat to life, health, and safety, rent was waived or reduced for only 6 percent of all tenant complaints, and while judges would routinely issue evictions to tenants, landlords were required to pay damages in less than one-half of 1 percent of all rent court cases.

Furthermore, while landlords can be represented by a non-attorney resident agent, tenants must be represented by a lawyer. This creates a power imbalance where landlords are represented by competent and experienced individuals while tenants are forced to fend for themselves.

The case of Anthony Johnson is one of the several cases discussed by the Baltimore Sun in regards to what happens in rent court. Johnson had rented a property from Waz Investments which is involved in a host of rent court cases for substandard living conditions. The company rented Johnson a house that had been deemed unfit for human habitation by housing inspectors. The house also did not receive its lead paint certification until Johnson had been living in the house six months.

Eventually, Johnson and Waz Investments sued each other in rent court. Johnson wanted the court to terminate the lease and award him $10,500 for paying rent on an uninhabitable home. Waz asked for $2,849 in back payments. Though the judge did waive Johnson’s back rent, Johnson did not get a chance to state his case for damages. Instead, the judge lectured him on the need to pay his rent.

The findings of the Baltimore Sun report echo that of a 2015 report, titled Justice Diverted from the Public Justice Center in collaboration with the Right to Housing Alliance. In addition to describing the obstacles faced by tenants in rent court, the report also has a number of recommendations. These include a pre-filing notice and waiting period requirement to reduce the number of cases heard in rent court, requiring landlords to document that they are in compliance with all licensing and inspection requirements, and mandating that all rental housing in Baltimore City be licensed.

After the 2016 state legislative session, a workgroup consisting of the judiciary, tenant advocates, and landlords was established to study the issue and come back with recommendations for legislation. After a great deal of negotiation, landlords and advocates came to an agreement on a small number of issues related to rent court. A bill containing these recommendations was introduced during the 2017 legislative session. It passed the House of Delegates but was voted down in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.

CPHA was founded 76 years ago to improve the living conditions of Baltimore’s  residents. A mechanism developed to ensure tenants are no longer forced to live in substandard housing was part of that mission. The mission continues; it’s time to reform rent court so that tenants are treated fairly.

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Gregory Friedman

Gregory Friedman

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