Earlier this month, the Public Justice Center issued a new study examining what happens to tenants facing eviction for nonpayment of rent in Baltimore City. The study – Justice Diverted: How Renters Are Processed in the Baltimore City Rent Court – makes a powerful case that tenants sued for eviction need the guiding hand of counsel in order to ensure their rights are enforced. While eviction procedures in Baltimore and the District of Columbia are different in many respects, the study offers many observations that our experience tells us hold true right here in the District.
Only 5 to 10 percent of tenants facing eviction in the Landlord and Tenant Branch of D.C. Superior Court are represented by counsel, while over 90 percent of landlords have attorneys. As a result, far too many tenants fail to raise defenses and instead sign one-sided repayment agreements that may inevitably and unnecessarily result in their eviction.
Legal Aid plays a critical coordinating role in two projects, both funded with generous support from the D.C. Bar Foundation and staffed with our partners at Bread for the City and Legal Counsel for the Elderly, which seek to address this overwhelming need. For nearly ten years, the Landlord Tenant Court-Based Legal Services Project has been providing same-day and extended representation to tenants facing eviction through an office located in the courthouse. This spring, we launched a new Subsidized Housing Representation Project, using a right to counsel model and partnerships with D.C. law firms to expand access to counsel for tenants living in subsidized housing who are facing eviction. Both projects seek to move the needle on representation and protect tenants from unnecessary eviction.
Among the specific findings in the Public Justice Center’s report:
Tenants facing eviction are among the most at-risk residents. Most tenants facing eviction in Baltimore City are African-American women with minor children, with at most a high school education, whose incomes place them at or below the federal poverty guidelines. While half receive some form of public benefits, the vast majority do not receive any kind of housing subsidy to help pay their rent.
Most tenants facing eviction for nonpayment of rent have viable defenses. In Maryland, as in D.C., a tenant can defend against a nonpayment of rent eviction suit by pointing out serious housing defects at the property. Over three-quarters of the tenants in Baltimore City reported at least one serious health/safety risk in the home such as no heat or hot water, insect or rodent infestation, mold, a broken stove/oven or fridge, or a broken window or door. Approximately three-quarters of these tenants had notified their landlord of the poor conditions before coming to court.
Most tenants do not know about the defenses they have. Nearly three-quarters (72 percent) of tenants did not know they could raise serious housing defects as a defense to a nonpayment of rent eviction suit. Eighty-six percent did not know they could seek a rent abatement based on serious housing defects. Tenants with prior experience before the court, higher educational attainment, or higher income were more likely to know about their rights – advantages most tenants lacked.
Landlords often fail to provide complete and accurate information in eviction complaints. While the Baltimore City Rent Court form complaints requires information about the landlord’s license, only one-third of landlords accurately provided this information. Comparing information in the filed complaints to data available from a state government agency, the study found that only 13 percent of landlords accurately reported their compliance with lead laws. Less than half of tenants surveyed reported that the complaint had been properly served.
Our experience tells us that tenants facing eviction in D.C. encounter these same brutal realities. By expanding access to counsel – particularly for those tenants living in subsidized housing – we are making justice real for these families and ensuring their voices are heard.