Tenants face unfair fight in Rent Court, study says UM scholar contends law favors landlords

August 16, 1992|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,Staff Writer

"Judgment for landlord. Next case."

"Judgment for landlord. Next case."

"Judgment for landlord. Next case."

The sound you hear is Baltimore tenants -- usually poor, black women -- being shoved ever closer to eviction. It is uttered in Rent Court with numbing regularity by a Baltimore judge every workday of every week. Scores of times. Hundreds on busy days.

"Judgment for landlord. Next case."

In the end, the vast majority of tenants who appear in Rent Court are able to stave off eviction, but first, tens of thousands of them, year after year, must endure this warning: Pay up or expect to hit the road.

A soon-to-be published study by a University of Maryland law professor suggests that when their day in Rent Court arrives, many of those tenants face an unfair fight. They lose, says Barbara Bezdek, the study's author, not simply because they may not have a valid defense against claims that their rent is late. They lose because the court is biased toward the landlords, a point that is overwhelmingly evident to tenants sitting in the courtroom. It is so apparent, Ms. Bezdek says, that the tenants are dissuaded from standing up for themselves.

Effectively silenced

"Tenants are silenced by dynamics occurring in and around the courtroom," Ms. Bezdek writes in her study, which will be published in the Hofstra Law Review this fall.

"If you just look at it straight on, at what happens," Ms. Bezdek said during an interview last week at the University of Maryland School of Law, "it looks unfair, it looks unequal. It does not look evenhanded. So I surmise that if it doesn't look evenhanded to me, it doesn't look evenhanded to tenants."

Linda Hollins, a 35-year-old mother of four, agreed wholeheartedly with Ms. Bezdek. Mrs. Hollins' housing case last week in the Eastside District Court at Harford Road and North Avenue lasted all of 30 seconds. She lost without ever saying a word.

"When you come down here," Mrs. Hollins said afterward, clutching her Bible outside the basement courtroom, "it's like they're for the landlord."

She said her rented house on Park Heights Avenue has no heat, faulty wiring and holes in the walls, through which water swamps during rainstorms. However, she mentioned none of that to the judge. "Nothing gets done if you complain," she said. "I just ask the Lord to take me through it."

The judgment against Mrs. Hollins means that within days a constable could appear at her doorstep and order her family out. Of those who get this far, however, fewer than 10 percent are actually evicted. Most pay or leave voluntarily.

Rent Court enables people to talk directly to a judge without an attorney. Its purpose is to help landlords get their rent from delinquent tenants and for tenants to have unsafe housing conditions addressed.

But Ms. Bezdek writes that Rent Court is actually serving only one of those functions, operating as nothing more than "a collection agency at public expense."

Ms. Bezdek and a team of law students observed Rent Court for four months in 1990. They also interviewed tenants and examined court records.

They found a forum in which landlords were overwhelmingly successful. Judges ruled in favor of landlords in nearly seven of every 10 cases. Tenants prevailed in only 3.5 percent of the cases. Most of the remaining cases were dismissed because the landlord did not appear.

Most tenants -- 85 percent of them -- did not show up either, which automatically led to a judgment for the landlord. Only one in five tenants who did come to court raised a defense.

Ms. Bezdek says it is unfair to assume tenants are silent because they have nothing to say. "It seems just as likely to me that tenants who do have a basis for a claim don't expect that that claim will be treated fairly . . . and so it's not worth it to come," said Ms. Bezdek.

During interviews, the majority of the tenants told her there were serious problems with their homes, deficiencies that the court can recognize as a valid excuse for withholding rent. (Ms. Bezdek's study notes a city housing report determining that 35 percent of Baltimore's rental housing was substandard, a figure that is much higher in poorer neighborhoods.)

Why, then, Ms. Bezdek wanted to know, do so few tenants raise these complaints in court?

Her answer is that tenants, from the moment they walk into Rent Court, receive signals telling them that it is not worthwhile to try to defend themselves. "They see a court system tailored to serve landlords," she says.

They see, for example, judges on familiar terms with landlord agents, who represent the majority of landlords and are in the courtroom every day. They see that the court accommodates the schedule of those agents unlike the tenants, who may have to wait hours for their cases.

They watch as the judge virtually conducts the landlord's case by taking up the questioning of tenants. "Did you pay your rent?" the judge asks. "No. Judgment for landlord."

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