Tenants Facing Eviction Deserve a Level Playing Field in Court

August 7, 2017 by Ellen Hutton in Blog, Economic Opportunity

For low-income families throughout Maryland, finding an affordable place to live is an uphill battle. Rent has skyrocketed, three-quarters of people who qualify for housing assistance vouchers can’t get them due to lack of funding, and many affordable housing units are in severe disrepair. For those who are able to find a home, an eviction can easily undo all of their hard work. This is especially an issue for families struggling to get by in Baltimore. Each year, 150,000 cases are filed in the city’s Rent Court, and nearly 7,000 households are evicted as a result.

In disputes between tenants and landlords, judges overwhelmingly favor landlords, even in cases where court-appointed inspectors have found the housing they provide to be a threat to tenants health and safety. Judges frequently blame tenants for substandard living conditions, when it is the legal responsibility of landlords to provide habitable housing. Landlords also have the benefit of easier access to legal representation. Tenants facing eviction often don’t know their options and can’t afford a lawyer to help them navigate the process and defend themselves.

Baltimore spends twice as much on carrying out evictions as it does on programs to prevent them. Evictions also cost Baltimore by increasing homelessness, and there are consequences for tenants’ ability to remain employed, their children’s education outcomes, health, and beyond. Overall, it is more cost-effective for Baltimore to invest in helping renters stay in their homes.

The Baltimore City Council is considering a number of measures to make the Rent Court system more fair for tenants and prevent landlords from evicting families who are not at fault. One bill under consideration establishes a public fund to provide legal assistance to tenants. A similar fund in San Francisco reduced the amount that the city spends on homelessness services. The proposed Tenant Legal Assistance Fund would need to be approved by Baltimore City voters, as well as the City Council.

In order to protect families in Baltimore, city leaders need to take steps to make more decent, safe affordable housing available and even the playing field for tenants and landlords in eviction cases. No one should lose their home simply because they can’t afford representation or don’t know their rights. Resolving this problem will benefit families and will be more cost-effective for the city in the long run.