There are numerous legal grounds through which tenants can legally withhold rent payments in Baltimore, but nonetheless, the city sees more than 6,000 of its low-income renters evicted each year. In many cases, the city's infamous Rent Court favors the landlords, and it has an eviction rate that's higher than any other major city except for Detroit, reported the Baltimore Sun this week.
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Baltimore's eviction rate was one of the main findings of a study carried out by the Public Justice Center together with the Right for Housing Alliance. That study interviewed more than 300 renters who were facing the threat of being evicted from their homes, and found that 78 percent had reported one or more health and safety threats in their home at the time their case went to court.
According to the study, almost 60 percent complained of rodent or insect problems, while another 41 percent spoke of concerns about lead paint. Meanwhile, 37 percent of renters who faced being evicted said their home had plumbing leaks. But unfortunately for them, although these are all legitimate reasons to withhold the rental payment, most renters are unable to obtain legal representation and do not realize they have a legal defense.
"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 wrote 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."
The study found that the majority of Baltimore's evicted renters were black women with low incomes of less than $2,000 per month. Many of them were also without public housing assistance, the report said. But even so, the Baltimore Rent Court is so efficient that most tenants were evicted within just 5 to 10 days of their landlord filing a nonpayment complaint, leaving them no time to mount a proper legal defense.
Former Baltimore judge Keith Matthews told the Baltimore Sun that the city's District Administrative Court has been working to improve the treatment of renters. He said the Court has hired a number of eviction-prevention workers and has also produced a video advising tenants on what to do when they face being evicted.
However, Matthews admitted that lawmakers could do more to help troubled renters out.
“Maryland is the easiest state to evict someone, because that's the way the laws are,” Matthews 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."