In rent court, frustrations fill the docket

May 25, 2007|By JEAN MARBELLA

There were husbands sent to prison, sudden ailments and lost jobs. Roommates who vanished, promises that were broken.

Spend a day in rent court, where landlords go to evict tenants, and the miseries pile up like missed payments and late fees. Spend a day in rent court and you realize how close to the edge some people live, a lost paycheck, a bad decision or a string of misfortune away from their stuff being dumped on the sidewalk and nowhere to live.

Unless, that is, they have a relative or friend to take them in.

If you wondered, as I did, how at least 13 people ended up living in the two-story Cecil Avenue rowhouse that burned Tuesday, killing six of them, you could find some answers in rent court.

By the dozens, tenants arrive with crumpled notices and bad-luck stories, some defiant and others defeated, some with tears in their eyes and others hopeful that next week's paycheck will buy them a little more time.

I don't know that any of the people living at 1903 Cecil Ave. had previously been evicted from other places, or if they just didn't have the money or the desire to live elsewhere. But with housing advocates decrying the severe drop in the number of low-income and subsidized housing units in the city, you begin to understand why so many people end up living in as crowded a home as the Cecil Avenue rowhouse rented by Deneen Thomas.

"Someone's not making enough to get a place by themselves. You can't find a room. And the shelters in Baltimore..." Linda Harris Street, a cousin of Thomas', said with a shudder. "It's family. Most everyone in there was family. Everybody tries to stick together."

Thomas had been taken to rent court by her landlords, who have said that she had stopped paying the $60-a-month rent and had too many people staying with her.

During a break from rent court yesterday, I went to see the burned-out house and its neighborhood. A steady stream of visitors -- insurance representatives dealing with a house next door that sustained damage, people who wanted to sign memorial posters on the charred home, even Mayor Sheila Dixon -- descended on the block off North Avenue.

"Most people that owned the houses died out, and the rentals came in, and the neighborhood's gone bad," groused Frazier Manning, 75, a retired railroad man who has lived on the block since 1962.

Dixon strolled the block, confronting one boy for not being in school and asking residents whether they have smoke detectors. (Manning has one in every room. Jacqueline Spriggs, who lives next door to the Thomas house, has one on every floor, and they went off as the smoke seeped through the walls.)

Dixon told me she doesn't believe the tragedy reveals a shortage of housing.

"It seems like the lady was taking in people. That was a lot of people living there," she said. "I don't think we have a housing shortage. I think it's people's economic situation. There's so much out there, but there's a disconnect. There are so many resources. There are jobs. How do we connect the resources to the people?"

Back in rent court, the cases drone on. In the morning, there aren't many tenants and not even many landlords -- often, they hire agents to handle the messy process for them. Some apartment buildings seem to have multiple tenants in arrears. The numbers seem staggering to my middle-class self.

"Today I only have 85 cases, but I came yesterday and I had 200 cases then," said agent Dolores West. "I know one agent who does four, five thousand a week.

Most of the cases, she said, get settled without eviction: Tenants pay up or work out a deal with the landlord -- there's usually a couple of weeks before the sheriff shows up -- or they leave on their own.

On this day, people seem even more burdened -- the 50 percent BGE rate increase approved this week weighs heavily on their already strained finances.

"Well, there are situations where people end up losing jobs or are in between jobs," Trevin Langston tells me after his turn before District Judge Joan B. Gordon. Langston, 30, said he has been struggling since he was laid off -- as many Verizon workers were -- about a year and a half ago. He has had other jobs, but none that paid as well.

"I put myself behind a while ago, I was never able to catch up," he said. "I just got behind on my rent a month. With electric going up, and gas prices, and my car note ... I can't get to work without my car."

He's gotten shut-off notices from BGE but said the utility has worked with him to keep the electricity on. He's hoping to avoid eviction -- he starts a new job next month, although he won't get his first paycheck until he has been working for two weeks.

During the afternoon session, more tenants appear to contest their cases. But most are fairly simple: People are behind on rent -- one landlord was on his fifth eviction proceeding with the same tenant -- and, with late fees piling up and yet another month coming due, they just can't pay up.

While occasionally reducing the amount of late fees that she found exorbitant, Gordon's decisions mostly were prescribed by the limits of rent court, which -- as she explained to those in the hearing room at 501 E. Fayette St. -- has one issue before it: "if rent has been paid timely and in full."

So she went through the docket, telling tenants how much the landlord said they owed, asking whether they disputed the amount, why they're behind and if they could pay it.

"I don't have it now," one woman said.

"I let it go," a man said.

And one woman just shrugged, wordlessly.

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