Out of work, into rent court, on the street

November 26, 1991|By Joan Jacobson | Joan Jacobson,Evening Sun Staff

A few hundred tenants pack into Essex rent court and spill into the hallway, hoping to stave off eviction for one more month.

They come with infants and toddlers, empty pockets and sad stories of lost jobs.

Richard Schofield has just been laid off as manager of Tony's Pizza.

He's come with his wife, Dawn, and one of their three children.

Hugh Painter Jr. has been out of work as a laborer for a year.

His unemployment benefits ran out this summer.

Susan Kay Fritze, who seems especially worried in a room full of worried people, lost her job a year ago when Levenson and Klein closed.

Mark Damewood is here, with the youngest of his four children, for the fourth time in recent months.

He says he lost his job as a laborer in August and didn't work long enough to qualify for jobless benefits.

Their plight is a barometer of the hard times reverberating throughout Baltimore and the surrounding five counties, where rent court has become a clearinghouse for thousands on the verge of eviction.

* Evictions have soared by 54 percent since 1986. The number has jumped from a monthly average of 714 in 1986 to 1,092 this year.

* The belongings of more than 1,000 families are put on the street each month with the court's sanction.

* Suits for non-payment of rent are up 23 percent in the past five years.

Landlords have been bringing suits at an average monthly rate ** of 28,606 compared with a monthly average of 23,220 five years ago.

The statistics, which reflect suits and evictions during 1991 through Sept. 30, are the most recent figures available from the District Court of Maryland.

But these numbers are misleadingly low.

The court counts evictions only when furniture is dumped outside and locks are changed. Officials don't keep tabs on the tenants who leave with their belongings before a state constable arrives.

Historically, the bulk of lawsuits for unpaid rent and the greatest number of evictions have been in Baltimore. But cases also are climbing steeply in the suburbs.

During the past five years, the average number of evictions each month has jumped 66 percent in Baltimore; 58 percent in Howard County; 46 percent in Baltimore County; 35 percent in Anne Arundel; and 17 percent in Harford. In Carroll, the monthly average more than doubled from 1986 to 1990, then fell off this year.

Robert Gadjys, executive director of Baltimore County's anti-poverty agency, says he has seen "the new poor coming in with rent-eviction notices we have never seen before."

In District Court in Baltimore County, few of the hundreds of tenants ever see a judge. Instead, they step forward in a kind of cattle call supervised by a clerk. The proceedings can last several hours. Those willing to stay until the end can plead their cases to a judge.

"It's not necessary to have a judge in there. If they want to see a judge, they can wait and see one," says Judge Gerard W. Wittstadt, explaining that judges are busy in other courtrooms.

Many who have lost their jobs hope to avoid eviction because of their predicaments. But they get no leniency from the court.

"What people don't understand is that a lease is only a contract," says Wittstadt, who has served on the District Court in Baltimore County for 16 years. "Judges don't have any right to modify any contract."

Under Maryland law, a landlord can evict anyone who doesn't pay -- no matter what the hardship.

Once the court confirms the unpaid rent, a warrant can be issued in 48 hours, allowing the landlord to reclaim the property and move a tenant's belongings into the street within a matter of days.

Don Walls, executive director of the Property Owners Association, which represents landlords in the metropolitan area, declined comment on evictions except to say that "a landlord still has to pay his fees, his costs" whether or not a tenant can pay rent.

Dennis Hodge, a lawyer who represents owners of nearly 5,000 apartments in the city and county, says he believes landlords have been filing suits for unpaid rent earlier each month than in the past "to protect themselves" because the poor economy has resulted in more tenants who are slow to pay.

"Quite a few [tenants] come to court saying they've been laid off. A lot of people have lost their unemployment benefits. But there's nothing in the law to provide them with an extension because they lost their job or benefits," he said.

Some tenants manage to stave off eviction by getting a referral during rent court to the state's Emergency Assistance Program.

As evictions have climbed, the number of emergency assistance grants to pay rent has also increased in the past five years, ranging in the metropolitan area from an increase of 68 percent in Baltimore County to 2 percent in Baltimore.

Under the grant program, an eligible tenant can get a total of $350 a year to help pay rent.

Fritze, the former saleswoman at Levenson and Klein, was referred to Emergency Assistance after she and Painter appeared at Essex rent court in October.

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