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by Louis Krauss9:09 amJul 28, 20200

Fear and protest as Baltimore rent court resumes

An attorney for landlords says “they really are empathetic” in many cases. Advocates fear landlords are misrepresenting cases as emergencies as a pretext to evict.

Above: Landlords are using the pandemic as an excuse for failing to make repairs, tenants say, at a protest in Baltimore calling for rent relief. (Louis Krauss)

With the federal moratorium on evictions expired and Maryland courts reopened, renters and their advocates protested outside of the District Court downtown to try and stop the wave of evictions they foresee as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“We are calling on the mayor, the governor, to show humanity, and good common decency to extend the moratorium, to cancel the rent,” Baltimore renter Lillie Robinson said yesterday through a microphone to the crowd of 50 people.

“People are still out of work, and don’t have income to pay their rent,” she continued, while renters and landlords lawyers entered the Fayette Street building where rent court takes place.

Members of Fair Development Roundtable, Housing Our Neighbors, United Workers and others hoisted signs that said, “Empty shelters, not empty houses” and “More than 200,000 people face eviction in Maryland.”

Quick to Evict

One of those people may be Tanya Griffin. The 59-year-old teaches pre-kindergarten students at the New Rogers Avenue Day Nursery, but lost a significant amount of income because she was out of work for two months in the spring.

“Whenever they get the okay from the courts, I guess they’ll start evicting us,” she said in a phone interview from her house in northwest Baltimore, where she takes care of her 91-year-old mother.

Although Griffin was brought back for work recently, she was unable to pay the last three months of rent, and said the nursery has considered shutting down again because of the recent rise in Covid cases.

She added the company she rents from is quick to evict people, and that she’s not sure where she would go if she was put out.

While hardhearted about demanding the rent, Griffin said the property owner is failing to make repairs, using the pandemic as an excuse.

“They try to blame everything on that, saying we can’t do work because of Covid,” she said. “But I need new carpeting, new blinds. They’re using it as an excuse.”

Hearings Began Earlier

While protesters chanted, honked horns and listened as low-income renters demanded action from officials outside the courthouse, a handful of landlords and a smaller number of renters were inside the building for emergency breach-of-lease hearings.

Yesterday’s proceedings were not the first to take place in the building since the judiciary imposed coronavirus restrictions.

Despite there being a moratorium on evictions until July 25, Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera’s order for reopening during Phase 2 allowed emergency breach-of-lease hearings “involving threats or injury to people or property” and “wrongful detainer” action to be held.

Those have gone on since the middle of July – so far, primarily for cases that began before the pandemic.

In the case of 49-year-old tenant Wayne Morton, who lives in a federally-subsidized townhouse managed by Lanvale LLC, the emergency hearing was due to Morton’s alleged failure to re-certify his lease with management over the past two years.

“If they do not qualify for subsidized housing, there are many out there that do” – Judge L. Robert Cooper.

“The waiting list for subsidized housing is lengthy,” District Judge L. Robert Cooper said on July 13, explaining why he placed it on the early docket.

“There’s a great need for it, so it’s imperative that those in subsidized housing demonstrate that their need to remain in that housing exists,” Cooper told The Brew. “If they do not qualify for subsidized housing, there are many out there that do.”

Matt Hill, an attorney with the Public Justice Center, said his staff worries that some recent eviction cases have not been legitimate emergencies and have resulted in unnecessary evictions during a pandemic.

“We are very concerned that landlords may be filing eviction cases that are not actually emergencies as a pretext to evict people,” Hill said.

“Any such landlord behavior in the middle of a pandemic is an unconscionable violation of basic human rights,” he continued. “We remain hopeful that the court will be vigilant in guarding against that kind of manipulation of the process.”

Landlords’ Perspective

About a half dozen landlords and their lawyers visited the courthouse Monday morning, some there to make progress on breach-of-lease cases that can ultimately lead to an eviction.

Darlyn R. McLaughlin, a lawyer who represents landlords in rent court, pointed out that owners not receiving rent payments are put in financial jeopardy and could themselves be forced to live on the street.

“I can put my client on the street or other people on the street. What’s my duty as an attorney?” McLaughlin said when asked about those who are critical of landlords who seek evictions amid the pandemic.

“The property managers aren’t making money because they can’t collect rent and then can’t repair properties,” she said. “The renters start using the system, saying ‘Oh my air conditioner doesn’t work’ but, meanwhile, they wouldn’t let the repairman in to fix it.”

Because of the extended court closure, McLaughlin said, she and other attorneys weren’t able to file any new eviction cases until last month. She estimated it won’t be until September that sheriffs will begin acting on warrants for eviction for failure to pay rent during the pandemic.

But contrary to their pubic image, she said, some landlords are trying to work out payment plans with tenants to avoid evictions.

“They really are sympathetic and empathetic seeing these elderly couples and young people with children during hard times,” she noted.

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