Eviction images won't disappear

Dan Rodricks

October 05, 1990|By Dan Rodricks

It's a detail from a vast mural, a little image of life in Baltimore that catches the corner of the eye, burns into memory, then vanishes. You could be walking a dog, driving a car. You could be jogging. You could be doing just about anything and happen by an eviction.

However ephemeral the image, however indifferent your attitude, the sight of an eviction lasts. It lingers in that place in the mind where memory and conscience meet.

You've seen it before: A mound of boxes and chairs and coffee tables and lamps and rugs, a little man-made knoll of upholstery and wood marking the site of another eviction. I saw one in Charles Village last week, one on East Madison Street the week before that.

Nothing extraordinary there.

In Baltimore last year, there were 6,416 evictions. Their number has been on the rise. There were 5,072 in 1987, and 6,016 in 1988.

Evictions are daily, fact-of-life events, gloomy little murmurs in the municipal heartbeat. Most of us see them from a distance. We have no real way of connecting to the disorganized, money-scarce lifestyle in which evictions are commonplace. Evictions are what happen to poor people, to the losers and the deadbeats.

The city, through its courts and its bureaucracy, has a long-established system for turning tenants out.

It starts with unhappy landlords. They go to court when their tenants don't pay. Nearly 187,000 times in 1989 landlords asked courts for "summary ejectments," constituting the first formal warning in the eviction process.

And nearly 187,000 times constables went to rented properties and tacked notices on tenants' doors. That might seem like a lot of taxpayer-financed dunning -- rent collection is a prime area for some serious privatization, don't you think? -- but that's the system.

If the first step fails, landlords go to court a second time to ask for an authorized eviction. In 1989, that happened 84,419 times. At that point most tenants got serious about paying their rent.

But in 1989, there were 6,416 who did not pay. And that lead to 6,416 of those street-side eyesores. Constables executed court orders. Landlords brought in movers, and Baltimore had more than 6,000 mounds of upholstery and wood on its sidewalks.

That's not the end of process.

Within a few hours, other movers under contract with the city come along, clean the sidewalk and take the remaining property to a warehouse. Tenants have 30 days to reclaim their property. That's the way the system works in Charm City.

Now, under a cost-saving measure proposed by the Schmoke administration, the last courtesy will be dropped from the eviction protocol. The city wants to skip the 30-day storage routine and take an evicted tenant's property directly to an incinerator.

Why?

Because it costs money to move and store the property and very few tenants ever show up to reclaim it. In fact, out of the 6,416 evictions in 1989, tenants reclaimed their property from the warehouse only 126 times. Tenants were present at eviction only 1,678 times.

You could surmise many different things from this.

Maybe the real deadbeats take their valuables and leave what they don't want behind. It's equally possible that tenants can't afford to have all their belongings moved.

Maybe they don't know anyone with a truck, either.

Or perhaps, when tenants are not present -- as in three-fourths of evictions -- thieves pick through the goods to the point that only worthless merchandise remains. (In some cases, property remains on the street for hours before it is moved to the warehouse on 28th Street.)

Maybe tenants don't care.

Maybe they're too ignorant.

Maybe they don't know the system, or where their property is taken or how to get it back.

Maybe they're confused and angry, or frustrated.

Maybe they get bitter and leave, and never look back.

Who knows? No one for sure.

But the benefit of doubt is gone. The city looks at the numbers and decides it doesn't make fiscal sense to store "junk" for people who are so poor or stupid or irresponsible that they get evicted. Just burning the stuff will save the city about $1 million a year. And there's another advantage. All those eyesores -- about 6,000 annual reminders that some people in Baltimore can't pay their rent -- will disappear for good.

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