During the COVID pandemic, there was a realization that having a place to live is not only a basic right of everyone but also a matter of public safety and health. Consequently, a lot of attention started to be paid to understanding the financial challenges people faced, and the Maryland legislature looked more deeply into the issue. Although advocates had been working on it in Annapolis for years, finally there came a general feeling that it was time to act.
Shore Legal Access has been providing assistance to people with a range of housing issues for a long time, but during the pandemic they received many phone calls from folks struggling mightily. These desperate people were getting eviction notices, despite the fact that they had no work or other places to go. So, Shore Legal moved quickly to set up attorneys on rent court day in district courthouses throughout the eight counties they serve.
At first, they did this with volunteers. Shore Legal had some retired lawyers and a couple of practicing attorneys willing to help. Board members who were lawyers handled some cases, as did Meredith Girard, the executive director of the Easton office. Fortunately, the Maryland General Assembly passed a law giving tenants access to counsel for rent, breach of lease, and wrongful detainer cases.
Landlord vs. Tenant
The owner of an inhabited building has the right to take a tenant to court for nonpayment. But the renter must be given ten days’ notice before any legal action. According to Girard, this is an improvement over how it used to be.
“That’s a newer law in place,” she said, “and it really does help to get people a little bit more notice.”
In the past, a landlord who didn’t want to go through the complicated legal process might have pulled an improper stunt to get the tenant out. If the owner was paying the utilities for a tenant who was behind in rent, he could have the water shut off, making the situation untenable. Then he could have the sheriff evict the tenant because the residence was uninhabitable. Fortunately, the process has changed.
Once the landlord or owner files for a court hearing, the date is set quickly. Shore Legal always advises their clients to go to the hearing and be able to tell their story. Before court, they should get all their documents together—lease, correspondence with the landlord, photos of any problem areas—and take them to the hearing, for which they can have legal representation present.
“Sometimes we’re able to get postponements to give us more time to collect information,” said Girard, “because sometimes you need to have an inspector go out and see what’s going on. Sometimes the landlord doesn’t have their ledger, and that’s something that they’re required to bring to court and be able to show exactly what was paid and what wasn’t paid to be able to prove their case.”
Often, the tenant might not be paying the rent because something is seriously wrong with the unit, such as no running water or heat or the presence of a bug infestation. And they can express this at the court hearing.
On a typical court day, the landlords or their representatives will show up, often with multiple filings if they manage many units. If the landlord doesn’t appear, the case is dismissed. But, if the tenant does not show up, they may get a judgment on their record, which could lead to their inability to rent somewhere else. If the tenant does appear and receives a judgment saying they owe a certain amount of money, they have a certain amount of time to pay.
If they do not pay the rent they owe, the landlord can file for a writ of restitution and then eviction. Within four days of approval, the owner or landlord may call the sheriff’s office and request eviction. Then the tenant who has not voluntarily moved out could find their possessions on the street.
“Maryland is doing a lot of effort to try to prevent this kind of thing from happening,” said Cambridge Mayor Steve Rideout, “because, once you are homeless, getting you back in a home is very, very difficult. Because who’s going to want to rent to you? Where are you going to come up with the money, the deposit?”
“Right now, a lot of the homeless are really people who are couch surfing,” Rideout continued. “They’re staying at your place today and my place tomorrow because they’re friends of ours. In some cases they’re taking their food stamps and paying you for the ability to spend the night when they need the money to buy food for themselves.”
The Salvation Army and Delmarva Community Services are the providers of shelter in Cambridge, and they require the inhabitants to be elsewhere between 8am and 5pm. According to Rideout, the life expectancy of these unhoused people is decreasing because they are out in the elements with insufficient clothing.
“We want to keep tenants in their homes,” said Girard. “It might be working out an agreement to pay any back rent. It might be that some of the rent that they’re being charged, they actually don’t even owe.”
In those cases, the landlords and renters can take advantage of the court’s mediation program and sit down to come to an accord. On occasion, the owner or landlord may not even implement an approved eviction, choosing instead to negotiate with the tenant. Additionally, if the tenant has not paid rent because the landlord has failed to make needed repairs, the tenant can pay into a rent escrow account held by the court until inspections of the property come to a satisfying conclusion.
One facility that Shore Legal Access is particularly concerned with right now is the Bradford House on Race Street in Cambridge. It is managed by Millennia Property Management, who has an agreement with the Department of Housing and Urban Development to provide housing for older adults and people with physical and mental disabilities.
Shore Legal has had clients at the Bradford for many years, but recently ten tenants called them for help because Millennia was suing them for failure to pay rent. But there have been long-standing issues there in terms of maintenance of the property—the elevator, toilets, and emergency call units not working, missing sinks, mold issues, and bed bugs. Despite HUD’s inspection report saying they’re out of compliance with their agreement, Millennia has been evicting these vulnerable inhabitants and leaving the others in unsafe conditions.
“There’s absolutely a complete lack of security at that facility, and people are in danger living there,” said Girard. “We’re very concerned about the health and safety of the tenants.”
One of the mental disabilities of tenants at the Bradford is substance abuse. As a result, there has been a considerable amount of drug distribution on the property, causing problems for the residents and the police. Rideout and other Cambridge officials met with the owner’s representatives and discussed corrective measures, such as a night guard and stairwell cameras.
“There’s a more systemic problem at play here, which is that the property management company is not being held accountable,” said Girard. “Right now there is a several-billion-dollar class action lawsuit against the same property management company for their failure to protect tenants in exactly the same situation…in another state.”
Girard is hopeful that she and her associates can continue to raise awareness about what’s happening at the Bradford House. In the meantime, they are looking for community partners to assist, because there are few options for the current residents who need to be rehoused.
“We have an immediate problem that we need members of the community to help fix,” she said. “I just don’t think we can stand by and watch this happen.”