The Courtroom That’s “Every Renter’s Nightmare”

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September 14, 2015; Next City

In “Welcome to the Courtroom That Is Every Renter’s Nightmare,” Rachel M. Cohen traces the evolution of Baltimore’s rent court from a social reform designed to improve housing conditions to an “injustice factory” that grinds out case after case, year after year. Ms. Cohen writes, “In recent years, housing courts look less like the guardian against slum conditions imagined by New Deal-era advocates and far more like other municipal courts that target low-level offenders and focus disproportionately on the poor.”

By outlining the history of the rent court and how it has become entrenched in municipal fundraising, Cohen deftly sends a message that change won’t come from within the court. Too bad she didn’t make her call for reform more explicit, although she does provide a nice profile of the Right to Housing Alliance, which is campaigning for court reform. The descent of the rent court from a social innovation to a factory of misery comes about because of the bureaucratization of “justice.”

“On a typical day in rent court, the average number of scheduled cases ranges from 800 to 1,000.” Ms. Cohen quotes Zafar Shah, an attorney with the Public Justice Center, as saying. “The court’s ‘dirty little secret’ is that it depends on the overwhelming majority of summoned tenants to not show up—meaning default wins for the landlord—because there’s no way judges could ever hear as many cases as they schedule.”

Later in the article, Ms. Cohen makes the connection between the Baltimore housing court and the abusive practices of the municipal court in Ferguson, Missouri, which were identified the recent Department of Justice review. (See Rick Cohen’s article, “Philanthropic Activism on the Ferguson Commission: An Interview with The Deaconess Foundation’s Starsky Wilson,” for a discussion of court reform in Ferguson.) In Baltimore, as in Ferguson and many other cities, the court generates revenue for the city.

In eviction court, landlords hold all the cards. Even if a tenant shows up for a hearing, landlords usually have extensive experience with court procedures and have relationships with court staff. If the landlord is not experienced, there’s an industry of “landlord lawyers” who specialize in filing evictions. Outside the courtroom, these practitioners tour the circuit of landlord organizations doing educational programs about eviction. Ms. Cohen quotes University of Maryland law professor Barbara Bezdek, saying, “Beneath ‘the veneer of due process,’ litigants ‘who are members of socially subordinated groups’ are systematically excluded.”

On the hopeful side is the emergence of a coalition of community-based organizations focused on bringing some justice to the rent court:

Now, attorneys at the Public Justice Center have teamed up with the Right to Housing Alliance (RTHA), a Baltimore-based human rights organization, and Jews United for Justice (JUFJ), a local activist group, to try and change the frustrating realities of rent court. With $280,000 in grant funding from the Abell Foundation, they hope to lead a court reform initiative and promote greater awareness about housing evictions around the city.

Tenants fear eviction without much understanding of how eviction works. In tenants’ minds, the word “eviction” may mean a verbal “if you don’t like it, move,” or a formal termination of a lease, or a notice to quit, or a court order, or a notice of dispossession. Each of these may be just one step in a much longer process. The article makes the point that Baltimore’s rent court depends upon tenants failing to appear for hearings. Fear leads to avoidance; because of the fear factor, educating tenants about their rights in eviction court rarely helps. Arcane court procedures and unfamiliar terms often prevent tenants from raising legitimate defenses.

In many states there’s just not enough money to provide “legal aid” for tenants in eviction court. Advocates in New York City are pushing the city to provide supplementary funding legal representation in housing court. More recently, advocates have promoted a “right to counsel” in New York City’s eviction court. In a 2011 NPQ article, “Court Costs Boosted to Underwrite Nonprofit Legal Services,” Bruce S. Trachtenberg shows how court fees can be used to subsidize legal services for tenants.

Even without mandatory representation, some courts have balanced the scales somewhat. Cleveland’s housing court, for example, has a staff of specialists who can give guidance through the process and provide pro se (self representation) forms for landlords and tenants. Cleveland’s housing court specialists can also provide alternative dispute resolution services to keep cases off the docket. This can save the landlord from the filing fees and can be important to tenants because credit reporting agencies pick up court filings, whether an eviction was actually granted.

Other legal reforms that might help include “pay to stay” (already the law in Pennsylvania) and “just cause” termination (currently provided to tenants in federally assisted properties and municipally rent-controlled properties). These and other recommendations were captured in a four-part series on “Eviction in Ohio” by Rental Housing Information Center in Ohio.

Why do we care so much about eviction? Ms. Cohen notes, “Judges often ask tenants why they don’t just move if a rental is uninhabitable or too expensive.” Besides the obvious answer that low-income households are often “stuck” in overpriced, substandard units because of the costs of moving and paying a new security deposit, there’s plenty of new research to show that housing instability imposes social costs on family members’ education, health, and employment. Stabilizing rental housing should be a policy goal for the U.S., and community-based organizations and social service professionals should be willing to lead the change.—Spencer Wells

Full disclosure: The author is the community manager of the Rental Housing Information Network in Ohio.