A helping hand through rent court

Kathryn Miller Goldman

February 08, 1993|By Kathryn Miller Goldman

IT IS no surprise to the homeless man at the intersection of Loch Raven and Taylor avenues begging food for work. It is no surprise to the mother and her two children living in the emergency shelter downtown.

We have a housing crisis.

The problem is not just in the city; it's in the affluent suburbs and the rural communities of the Eastern Shore. The problem is not just in public housing. It's not just the vacant high-rise apartments at Lexington Terrace, not only the 26,000 families on the housing authority's waiting list.

The blame is dispersed, too. Wrongful evictions and sub-standard living conditions can be blamed in part on greedy, uncaring landlords. The law is also partially at fault; it favors those who have and those who know at the expense of the poor and unknowing.

The enormity of the crisis overwhelms. A frustrating lack of funds seems to stop new ideas in their tracks. But money is not the only weapon available. Much can be done by those armed with knowledge, energy and ingenuity.

Some of it is coming from the Public Justice Center by way of the Tenant Advocacy Project, or TAP. TAP provides free legal assistance to low-income tenants throughout Maryland. TAP's goals are to prevent wrongful evictions, improve housing conditions and resolve rent or lease disputes for individuals who find themselves in rent court. Thanks to this new legal services program, hundreds of Maryland tenants are being represented in rent court.

Providing free legal services to the poor is not a new idea, but having non-lawyers do it is. At the core of TAP are highly motivated and trained tenant advocates. The advocates are citizen volunteers who participate in a 10-week intensive training program. Training involves a grounding in landlord/tenant law and in rent court procedures. Once their training is completed, advocates are assigned to represent tenants in court.

The project does not operate completely without attorneys, however. The training program for advocates has been designed by lawyers and is taught by lawyers. Once advocates have been assigned tenants to represent, the cases are supervised by attorneys.

In 1992, more than 1,000 families were evicted from their homes in Maryland. Children watched as their family belongings were dragged into the street and left there by strangers. Many of these evictions, of course, led to homelessness. By the time such evictions actually take place, tenants typically have heard from rent court more than once. They know they are in trouble, but they don't know what to do about it.

Many of these evictions can be avoided. Lack of funds to pay the rent isn't always the primary reason a family is thrown into the street. A judge may have hundreds of cases to try in one day, giving each tenant a minute to speak. It's no surprise that tenants cannot articulate their causes or follow procedures precisely. The whirl of rent court is enough to confuse even the most tenacious of individuals as cases are called, verdicts entered and words with meanings known only to the initiated few fly around the room.

Matching a tenant with a trained advocate begins to give that tenant a voice in the system, a voice that may be heard above the din by a judge who is struggling to be fair. The advocates know how to comply with the intricacies of courtroom procedure. They know tenants' rights.

When TAP began in 1991, 110 cases were handled during the entire year. Today, that many cases are handled in a month, and the numbers are growing. The motivation behind this project is ++ vision and energy. The goal is fairness in housing.

Kathryn Miller Goldman is a Baltimore attorney who serves on the steering committee of the Tenant Advocacy Project.

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