In Baltimore, evictions are quick, common

Consequences extend beyond delinquent renters

October 19, 2003|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

Everything Margie Jones owns was hauled out of her West Baltimore rowhouse and dumped at the curb on the first really cold day of fall. She kept watch over it all day from the front stoop, shivering and shooing away would-be scavengers as she waited for someone to help her move it.

Four months behind on her rent, the former Laundromat attendant had held out hope that she could avoid eviction until the morning the sheriff's deputy arrived.

"I've worked all my life," said Jones, 56, who said she had to quit her job in March because of heart trouble. "I don't think I should end up like this."

But the odds were against her. She is working class. She is unemployed. And she lives in Baltimore.

Evictions are more common in Baltimore than in many cities, in part because the population is largely poor and the eviction process unusually swift, according to an Abell Foundation report, court officials and local tenant advocates.

There were 7,443 evictions in Baltimore last year -- representing nearly 6 percent of the city's renters, the Abell report found. Tenant groups have pushed unsuccessfully for changes in eviction law and say they are likely to try again when the General Assembly meets in January.

Renters can be ousted as quickly as 16 business days after they miss a rent payment. The process can take months elsewhere.

"It's easier to evict someone in Baltimore City than almost anywhere else in the country," said Judge Keith E. Mathews, the administrative judge for the city's District Court, which each year handles more eviction cases than there are rental properties in Baltimore.

That evictions are quick and common has consequences not just for delinquent renters. Neighbors have to live with piles of household goods left behind in the street. Public works crews have to pick up and sometimes store the items. And rent court is so overwhelmed by eviction cases that judges have little time to spend on each one.

"This is a system that does not work well for anybody," said John Nethercut, executive director of the Public Justice Center, a nonprofit legal group in Baltimore that represents low-income people in eviction and other cases.

In many states, landlords must send their tenants a notice of overdue rent before taking legal action. The debt is often settled without an eviction or court case.

No notification required

There is no notification requirement in Maryland, so the first step is to file a lawsuit. That puts a huge burden on District Court and also speeds the eviction process, court officials say.

About 160,000 eviction lawsuits are filed each year in Baltimore, which has about 128,000 rental properties, according to the Abell report issued in March. That amounts to 1.25 eviction cases for every rental house or apartment.

The lawsuit-to-property ratio is lower in many other cities, as is the eviction rate. One percent of renters are evicted in Cleveland and New York City, while 3 percent are ousted in Philadelphia and 5 percent in Detroit, the report noted. In Washington, like Baltimore, the rate is nearly 6 percent.

While the vast majority of Baltimore cases are resolved without an eviction, they clog rent court, making it difficult for judges to devote time to lawsuits that need it, tenant advocates say.

A single judge handles a docket of 300 to 1,200 cases on any given day in rent court, which District Court judges preside over on a rotating basis.

"It's not a matter of whether a particular judge cares about landlord-tenant cases," said Francine K. Hahn, a lawyer with the Public Justice Center. "If you just do the math, they only have a few seconds for each case. ... And the consequence to tenants is the loss of their home."

Mathews says the large number of eviction lawsuits is "a burden" on the court. But he disagrees with the notion that judges, in their haste to plow through the docket, are ordering more evictions than they should.

Many cases do not require much time, the judge said, because tenants often do not appear in court. That makes for a quick ruling in favor of the landlord.

Mathews believes evictions are more common in Baltimore simply because the process begins in court, which starts the clock ticking right away.

One day after the rent is late, the landlord can file a suit. Five to seven days later, there is a trial in rent court. If the judge finds in favor of the landlord, an eviction order will be issued in 10 to 15 days. Eviction can take place anytime after that, as soon as a sheriff's deputy is available to oversee it.

Advocates seek changes

Tenant advocates would like to see Maryland law changed in several ways: requiring landlords to notify tenants before filing an eviction lawsuit; stopping the practice of putting belongings on the streets, perhaps by having the city or landlords move or store them; and letting tenants know the date their eviction is scheduled. The city Sheriff's Office does not provide notice of when an eviction will take place.

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