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Neighborhoodsby Louis Krauss9:02 amMay 20, 20200

Without an attorney “I would have been homeless”

Free legal counsel to prevent arbitrary evictions in Baltimore would save a lot of money, an Abell Foundation study finds. Calls for more support for renters.

Above: Eviction risk map based on 2018-19 Baltimore Rent Court data. (U.C. Berkeley-University of Washington evictions study)

When Baltimore tenant Josephine Murdock filed a rent escrow complaint against her landlord, she thought it was a strong case. The landlord had refused to fix a gas leak that overwhelmed her and sent her to the hospital twice.

But when Murdock got to court, her case was dismissed because the landlord had sold the property to another entity, which turned out to be a company owned by the same landlord. When Murdock tried to file again, finding legal assistance was difficult.

“I contacted numerous agencies within the city for assistance, to no avail,” said Murdock, who was eventually represented by a Public Justice Center attorney.

Without free legal help, she said, “I would have been homeless.”

That’s the idea behind a new study of evictions in Baltimore, which found that 96% of landlords have a lawyer in their eviction cases, compared to 1% of tenants.

An annual investment of $5.7 million to provide 7,000 tenants with free legal counsel in eviction cases would create $35.6 million in savings, according to a study funded by the Abell Foundation.

These savings would come from eliminating the spending needed to respond to all of the extra costs of putting people out of their homes.

That includes the cost for homeless services and shelters, emergency room visits charged to Medicaid, chronic absenteeism and the cost of foster care if children have to be removed from their parents as a result of homelessness.

The Abell study, along with another by Tim Thomas, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of California Berkeley and a researcher at the University of Washington, The Evictions Study, found a wide disparity of outcomes between white and black residents in Baltimore when it comes to eviction.

“Covid-19 has exposed our inadequate housing policies,” Public Justice Center attorney Matthew Hill said at the virtual press conference organized by a group of housing advocates, lawmakers and tenants.

“But we now have the chance to correct this injustice and the disparate impact on black families with cost-effective solutions to rebuild our housing economy.”

Armed with the new reports, the advocates are demanding rent assistance and access to legal representation for tenants amid the virus pandemic.

Dealing with Disparity

The studies analyzed Baltimore’s rent court and eviction statistics, finding drastic racial, ethnic and gender differences in the city’s eviction process.

Baltimore’s high eviction rate – nearly 2.5 times the national average – was traced back to evictions in the “black butterfly” neighborhoods of Baltimore.

This according to Thomas’ Eviction Study, which analyzed more than 9,000 city rent course cases from 2018 and 2019.

The study found that black households were three times more likely to be evicted than white households. Even more striking, the number of evicted black women was 3.9 times higher than the number of white men evicted.

When Maryland’s moratorium on evictions due to the Covid-19 pandemic ends, attorneys at the Public Justice Center predict a “wave” of evictions that could worsen these racial disparities.

Nearly 140,000 eviction cases are filed annually in Baltimore, resulting in approximately 70,000 eviction warrants, according to the advocates.

“I think it’s a very fair assumption that the upcoming evictions will overlap and affect the same folks,” Hill said.

Sewage and Mold

Several local elected officials, including State Senator Mary Washington, Delegate Brooke Lierman and City Council President Brandon Scott, attended the virtual meeting and gave their support.

People with personal experience of housing insecurity spoke as well.

Tiffany Ralph, secretary of the Bolton Hill Residents Association, said the problem is greater than just the emergency circumstances of Covid-19. There needs to be a shift in power so that tenants aren’t simply “at the mercy of the landlord,” she said.

“We need a right to counsel so that folks know that they won’t have to face the landlord alone”  – Tiffany Ralph.

She told her story of living in an apartment where a landlord refused to look into her claims that sewage was leaking into the bathroom. More recently, she said, she’s had to live with mold.

“We need a right to counsel so that folks know that they won’t have to face the landlord alone,” Ralph said. “Landlords look at tenants as just a means to an end. But we’re human beings who work hard to keep a roof over our heads.”

Terrell Askew, an organizer for United Workers, recalled “couch surfing” as a boy of seven because his family was evicted.

He said he doesn’t want other children to experience what he went through when his family was displaced.

“Honestly, this is something that should’ve never been in existence,” Askew said. “And it shouldn’t have taken Covid-19 for us to speak about it.”

NOTE: The Abell Foundation provides financial support to The Brew in an effort to strengthen community journalism.

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