Agency chief says renters don't get what they pay for


January 10, 1993|By Adriane B. Miller | Adriane B. Miller,Contributing Writer

"Y'know the landlord rang my front doorbell. I let it ring for a long, long spell. I went to the window and peeped through the blind. I asked him to tell me what was on his mind, and he said, 'Money, honey Money, honey Money, honey, if you want to get along with me."

-- Jesse Stone

From the song "Money Honey"

Life is unfair, tenants say. George Laurent, executive director of Baltimore Neighborhoods Inc. (BNI), is inclined to agree.

Landlords demand that tenants pay their rent to the penny, and not one day late. But when a tenant demands that the landlord fix broken appliances or plumbing or floors or fixtures, what needs fixing may stay unfixed for months.

"Tenants don't get what they pay for," Mr. Laurent says. If a tenant complains, the landlord can retaliate by not renewing the tenant's lease. And when the tenant takes his complaints to rent court, he says the law favors landlords.

"We are not anti-landlord," Mr. Laurent insists. BNI is a private nonprofit agency that helps both tenants and landlords understand their rights and resolve differences. "We realize you can get very unreasonable tenants. But in my 25 years here I've been totally amazed by the gracious way in which courts treat landlords."

He said he saw one judge fine a landlord $35,000 for failure to maintain tenants' apartments. But instead of paying the fine to the court, the landlord was allowed to use the money to make the repairs he should have made anyway. "The man lost nothing," says Mr. Laurent, for failing to give his tenants what they were paying for: a decent place to live.

Not everybody agrees that landlords get preferential treatment; landlords, for instance.

Donna Neuman, public affairs director of the National Apartment Association in Washington, said injustices occur.

"But it's an over-generalization," to say the law favors landlords, she said. In fact, landlords often feel victimized by tenants.

"A landlord can't just evict somebody," she said. "Even in drug trafficking, even if they have a police warrant, it's just not that easy to kick somebody out. You really have to go through the whole court process.

"People tend to forget that managing an apartment is a job like anything else," Ms. Neuman said. "This is their livelihood, they have to look out for their own best interests. But I don't think there are many landlords who are abusing tenant rights."

Yet one thing is clear: Landlords and tenants are increasingly at odds with one another. BNI says the volume of calls coming into its Baltimore office is up 22 percent from 1991.

BNI is usually the place where rent courts refer callers with questions about their rights. It's also the number the Baltimore Housing Authority and Baltimore County Livability Code office give people with concerns about leases.

Callers to BNI may say they don't have money to pay rent and fear eviction. Or, their landlord mistakenly claims they owe rent. They say their landlord is threatening to cut off services or is ignoring defects in the building that need repair. Sometimes, callers say their landlord has changed the terms of the lease before the lease expires.

Often, miscommunication is the biggest problem the landlord and tenant have. "A good many times a letter or phone call from us to the landlord solves the problem," Mr. Laurent says.

RF But if it doesn't, tenants may have to take their problems to rent



Milton Oakley, a part-time volunteer counselor for BNI, says there no universally accepted code of tenant rights. "They run wild," from state to state, he said. But here are a few generalities of tenant laws:

* Tenants usually can't get evicted without warning.

"A landlord cannot evict a tenant by himself," Mr. Oakley said. "He first has to go to rent court for a hearing and court eviction order, and before that, the tenant has to receive notice of such hearings."

Nonpayment of rent is the most common reason for an eviction hearing in rent court, Mr. Oakley says. "If the tenant is one day late, the landlord can file against the tenant. If I don't go to the hearing, I can be evicted. But if I go, I have the opportunity to explain why I haven't paid my rent."

Even if the judge decides the tenant must pay rent or get the boot, the landlord must wait an additional 48 hours before he can schedule an eviction.

In return for rent, the landlord must provide the tenant with a place to live that complies with the local housing code. If the landlord won't fix what the tenant says is wrong, Mr. Oakley says the tenant may ask a local housing inspector to visit. The inspector may issue a written citation to the landlord for failure to have kept the place in compliance with the housing code. If the problem still isn't fixed, the tenant may write a letter to the landlord explaining that until the problem is corrected, he will withhold rent.

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