Photographer: Lance Rosenfield/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Baltimore Renters Turn to Judge Judy to Navigate Eviction Flood

Tenant advocates decry system in crisis that steamrolls the poor.

"Rent court'' is a Baltimore institution where landlords try to force tenants to pay up or get out. It may also be a good place to gauge how America’s urban poor are faring in the face of affordable housing shortages and rampant gentrification. The answer is not good.

Baltimore is second only to Detroit in eviction cases, and the Maryland city's landlords will file more than 150,000 complaints with the court by year's end, according to a report by the Public Justice Center, a local nonprofit that offers free legal representation in civil cases. At last count, that's about 30,000 more cases than there are Baltimore renters, a striking ratio even with some tenants getting multiple complaints.

Unlike mortgage foreclosures, data on evictions are hard to come by. In Milwaukee,  one in five black women had been evicted from a rental at some point in her adult life, according to a report this year. In 2013, the Census Bureau’s American Housing Survey showed that Baltimore renters are among the most likely to be threatened with eviction. The PJC report unveiled Sunday relied on data compiled from the Baltimore City Sheriff to show how a novel system has run aground.

Evictions often start a vicious cycle, writes Matthew Desmond, the Harvard sociologist who conducted the Milwaukee study, forcing tenants into homelessness or substandard housing. The tenants who wind up in Baltimore rent court are usually at a disadvantage, often poor and almost always without legal representation, said Zafar Shah, a lawyer at the PJC. 

As part of the Baltimore report, the nonprofit interviewed almost 300 tenants. It found that the typical recipient of an eviction notice was a black woman who earns less than $2,000 a month. Most of the renters PJC talked to said they lived in apartments with such defects as leaky roofs and faulty boilers—facts that could have allowed them to withhold rent, shielding them from eviction.

Some respondents said they prepared for their day in rent court by talking to friends and family who had been through the process. Others said they got ready by watching courtroom reality TV shows such as Judge Judy. 

“You have tenants with a lack of knowledge about their rights, facing a party that’s usually very familiar with the process,” Shah said. “It’s hard for tenants to defend themselves.”

Those who do make it into the courtroom don't face lawyers but, instead, debt collectors doing a high-volume business, carrying hundreds of cases on behalf of landlords. The secret of Baltimore's rent court, however, is that most cases are resolved before they reach a judge. Eviction notices are often used as a tactic to get renters to make a late payment rather than leave—just 21 percent argued their case before a judge. (Of about 150,000 rent court claims, the report anticipates fewer than 7,000 physical evictions.) 

Poor renters who don't know their rights are often met at the courthouse by agents for the landlords looking to negotiate deals in the hallway. The average amount owed by tenants in the survey—$1,650—is reduced by less than $400, on average. A knowledgeable tenant, or one with a lawyer, is likely to save more, Shah said.

One interesting aspect of the Baltimore rent court is that some landlords want to change the system. Kathy Howard, a legislative committee chair for the Maryland Multifamily Housing Association, a landlord group, said her organization is working with tenant advocates to improve the process. Promising ideas include writing eviction notices in plain English instead of legalese and making information more readily available online. 

"Everybody’s wish list would include an attorney for every litigant,'' said Howard. "But that’s not realistic.” 

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