When you own a home and decide to sell it, making even small changes can have an excellent ROI. For instance, replacing your windows can recoup 73% to 77% of its original cost. But when you rent your domicile, your landlord is responsible for making sure that your home looks good, functions well, and doesn’t risk your safety — in theory, anyway.
The Baltimore housing court is the oldest of its kind in the entire United States. But while it was originally designed to hold landlords accountable and to keep tenants safe, these days, it’s not even close to meeting that goal. In fact, a recent investigation conducted by The Baltimore Sun found that the housing court works, more often than not, against those tenants it should protect. The result? Baltimore landlords are not being held responsible for fixing violations or meeting requirements. And tenants are living in poor conditions — if they can even afford to live there in the first place.
When repairs aren’t being performed, a tenant can file a claim in escrow court. Once a city inspector visits the property and makes a report, the judge can then review that report and decide to open up an escrow account, into which a tenant pays their rent until repairs are completed. A recent analysis found that Baltimore escrow court judges disproportionately favored landlords, even when the evidence plainly showed they were in the wrong.
In studying more than 5,500 complaints filed by tenants between 2010 to 2016, the analysis showed that even when inspectors identified and reported huge code violations — like lack of heat, leaking roofs, insect and rodent infestations, and lead paint concerns — judges sided with the landlords. Despite the fact that in 1,427 cases, court records show city inspectors identified threats to life, health, and safety, judges established escrow accounts in only 702 of those cases.
Even worse is the fact that many of these tenants can’t even afford to take their case to court in the first place. And if they do happen to get there, they don’t have the know-how to have a chance at winning.
According to The Baltimore Sun, “Landlords win because they enjoy the advantage of being ‘repeat players,'” says Matt Hill, an attorney with the Public Justice Center. “Landlords and their agents know the judges and clerks and understand how the system works. Tenants, by contrast, arrive at hearings with little knowledge. They really are lost, and don’t know how to advocate.”
The Sun points out that this is particularly troubling, given how many Baltimore residents rent their homes.
“The challenge is particularly great in Baltimore, because a disproportionate number of the city’s residents rent rather than own their homes. Nearly 53% of the city’s more than 297,000 homes are rentals, according to Census figures.”
Not only that, but according to 2013’s American Housing Survey conducted by the Census Bureau, “Baltimore’s renters had the unhappy distinction of receiving more court-ordered eviction notices per capita than any other city. More than 67,000 notices that year led to more than 6,600 evictions. Last year, nearly 70,000 eviction notices led to nearly 7,500 evictions.”
Another piece by The Baltimore Sun stresses the fact that something desperately needs to shift. Leveling the playing field for tenants in court could be one solution, but another is that the city of Baltimore needs to extend their current licensing requirements to reflect all rental units, rather than just one- and two-unit properties, to ensure the health and safety of tenants. Further, the piece suggests that “the law should be simple: if any landlord doesn’t pass an annual inspection, then they can’t file a complaint for eviction.”
The bottom line is that Baltimore residents are being hurt by the processes that were designed to protect them. Catherine E. Pugh, Baltimore’s new mayor, has sponsored legislation in the past pertaining to rent reform across the state of Maryland. Local residents are hopeful that her leadership will inspire a much-needed change.