I spent many hours beginning last June, meeting with a group that included tenant-advocates, people in the court system, the attorney general’s office, non-profits, and educators, to come up with ways to make the Rent Court system better. Landlords supported more education for tenants and more resources, including student lawyers and “navigators” to help tenants through the system. The following is a Op-Ed Article in which the Maryland Multi-Housing Association responds to the Baltimore Sun’s series of articles on Rent Court:
Landlords: Sun rent court series was unfair
It’s time that the Sunpapers and tenant advocates give Baltimore’s professional landlords and hardworking judges in rent court some recognition and support! For over nine months, the judiciary, landlord representatives, tenant advocates, court personnel, housing department representatives and other government agencies met to improve rent and rent escrow court in Baltimore as well as statewide through in-depth work that resulted in both legislative and non-legislative proposals to improve access to representation and information for both tenants and landlords. For example, trial day mediation, pro bono attorney limited scope representation, courthouse self-help representation assistance offices and online services, non-lawyer navigators, looped rent court information tapes, eviction information brochures and plain English court forms have been or are being implemented right now.
Then why is it that after the Maryland Multi Housing Association (MMHA) spent hours answering reporter Doug Donovan’s questions about rent and rent escrow court and these initiatives, none of those answers were reported? (“Eviction prevention efforts in Baltimore lag,” May 6) Could it be that both The Sun and tenant advocates would rather pick perceived winners and losers than to acknowledge the following facts about landlord tenant relationships, particularly in Baltimore? You be the judge!
Baltimore’s landlords are in the rental business not the eviction business. Landlords provide a valuable service to their tenants just as grocery stores, restaurants, pharmacies and auto repair businesses do. The tenants are the landlords’ customers who sign a contract, called a lease, saying that they will pay for those services every month.
What’s different about the landlord business is that if a tenant does not pay, thus violating the terms of the contract, the Maryland legislature has mandated that landlords use a legal process overseen by the courts to collect the unpaid rent and agreed upon expenses of the contract. The process is long, sometimes taking more than 60 to 90 days from filing to scheduled eviction. During that time the landlord’s expenses, such as the mortgage, utilities, associated taxes and property repairs must continue to be paid. All the while the tenant lives in the rental residence, without paying rent, while the case rumbles through the system.
In the end the legal process provides an essential and equitable check and balance by having the court, a neutral tribunal, decide if claims by the landlord are correct or whether the tenant has provided a valid defense. And like it or not, in most cases the tenant has no legal reason for not paying his or her rent according to the terms of the lease.
In Baltimore, nonpayment of rent happens over and over again because tenants have the legal right, four times per year, to avoid eviction by paying what they owe, even up to the time their physical eviction is to start.
Statistics provided to MMHA by a landlord’s filing agent showed that 80 percent of its rent cases were filed on the same tenants at least twice a year and generally more than four times per year. These numbers are the norm, thus making it probable that at least 120,000 of the city’s 150,000 annual rent case filings result from tenants repeatedly failing to pay and then later paying to stay and not because of systemic court-made obstacles or because a recalcitrant landlord fails to make timely, court-ordered repairs.
Keeping Baltimore rental property viable, affordable and available is complicated and requires the participation of government, the courts, landlords, tenant advocates and even the press. When The Sun and tenant advocates berate landlords and judges who are doing what the law requires, they impede efforts to bring about lasting, balanced change. We should all demand that they stop it now!
- Adam Skolnik and Katherine Kelly Howard, Baltimore
The writers are executive director and legislative committee chair of the Maryland Multi Housing Association.