Baltimore renters would have the right to counsel in eviction cases under a bill introduced last night by City Council President Brandon Scott, who said his goal is to keep people from homelessness and balance the landlord-tenant power dynamic.
The bill follows an Abell Foundation-funded study that asserted that Baltimore could save more than $35 million in homeless and foster services, emergency room visits and other costs by spending just $5.7 million on legal help for renters.
The study found almost all landlords – 96% of them – were represented by a lawyer in court, but just 1% of tenants had representation.
“It’s a proven, cost-effective means of preventing disruptive displacement,” said attorney Matt Hill, of the Public Justice Center.
Free legal help levels the playing field and “makes sure tenants are treated with respect,” he said.
No Time to Waste
Low-income renters would receive pro-bono support from groups such as Maryland Legal Aid and the Public Justice Center. The new program would be housed in the city’s housing department.
To make the program effective, the Council would also have to pass legislation appropriating the funds for renters’ representation.
With two months to go until the end of the term when all pending bills and resolutions fail, Scott doesn’t have much time to waste.
Yesterday’s legislation begs the question of why not offer direct rent assistance to tenants facing eviction?
“Rent assistance is important, but we do see a lot of bang for the buck nationwide with right to counsel,” Hill told The Brew.
Scott’s spokesperson, Stefanie Mavronis, acknowledged that the program would not be up and running in time to meet the immediate needs associated with the Covid-19 pandemic.
“This is attempting to make something that lives beyond this crisis,” she said.
Other cities that provide the right to counsel to tenants in eviction cases include Cleveland, Philadelphia and New York City.
“You’re complaining too much”
At a press conference held before yesterday’s Council meeting, one of Hill’s clients, Shalonda Glascoe, shared her story.
Glascoe said she lost her job last year and hasn’t found work since, especially during the pandemic. After she complained about rats and other issues in her house, she said her landlord retaliated by trying to evict her.
“In their eyes, you’re complaining too much,” she said. “They constantly come after me, regardless. It’s very stressful. And without Matt and [his] help, I wouldn’t have made it through this.”
When she choked up describing the threatening notes her landlord left on her door, Hill reassured her.
“You’re not alone. There are a lot of folks in your situation, and it needs to stop,” Hill said.