The stories we hear from Baltimore renters who come to us for help with bad landlords would break your heart:
Leaky pipes in the ceiling, mold in the walls, rats they try to block out by stuffing bricks in the foundation walls, and landlords who instead of trying to fix the problems simply evict tenants who are, understandably, withholding their rent.
It’s a struggle to try and help them but at least the city’s law requiring landlords to have a valid rental license gives us some leverage against predatory property owners.
But a decision by the Maryland Court of Appeals undermines even that very basic safeguard.
On November 29, the court published a ruling in the case of two residents of the Copycat Building in Baltimore who lived in the building on month-to-month leases.
The District Court had granted the company’s request for eviction orders at trial, despite the efforts of advocates and attorneys representing the occupants of the 1501 Guilford Avenue building, where some residents during the coronavirus pandemic had stopped paying rent.
At the time the trials took place, the Copycat building did not possess a valid rental license to rent out units to tenants (as required by Baltimore City Code Article 13, Section 499).
The tenants appealed the decisions, arguing that without a valid rental license, the Copycat should not be able to obtain an eviction order. (The landlord had used an alternative legal mechanism called “tenant holding over court” to circumvent government eviction moratoriums imposed as a response to the Covid-19 pandemic.)
The tenants argued that, by renting out units without a valid license, the company violates a law with the specific purpose of regulating rental properties to protect the public.
But the Court of Appeals disagreed with this argument, ruling that the Copycat and similarly situated landlords can evict tenants who remain in their homes after the expiration of their lease – despite their lack of valid licenses.
It’s a decision that could lead to disastrous results for vulnerable renters in Baltimore and across the state.
Pandora’s Box Opened
There are two issues that need to be highlighted:
The ruling undermines a city law that gives tenants an added layer of at least some protection from predatory landlords who refuse to provide even the most basic of habitability. That’s because the licensing process requires the properties to pass a basic inspection.
Enforcement is always a challenge,but the law has at least given us and our clients some basis on which we can press the city to make the landlords do the right thing.
The licensing process being undermined by the court requires the properties to, at least, pass a basic inspection.
The other issue is the right of the city to enact laws and govern itself.
Both of these issues were ignored by the court, to the detriment of these tenants now that this Pandora’s box has been opened.
This ruling comes as no surprise to those familiar with the situation faced by renters in Baltimore.
Baltimore has one of the highest rates of eviction in the country, and these statistics are more alarming when noting the demographics of evictions in Baltimore.
The eviction crisis existed long before the pandemic. The burden disproportionately falls on Black and women-led households, continuing the legacy of Baltimore’s racist housing policy, one that began in the early 1900s with the first-ever segregated housing law.
Until city and state government – including the state’s courts – recognize that we cannot continue the legacy of predatory housing and act accordingly, the city will be unable to move forward.
And tenants will continue to be evicted by landlords who have no incentive to follow the law.
Instead of letting this unfortunate ruling prevail, the Maryland General Assembly should be the focus of soul-searching and policy-changing.
They should begin reviewing and revising our rental property laws in order to correct the power imbalance between landlords and tenants.
And they should make sure the laws of local jurisdictions are given equal measure in the courts.
• Carol Ott is the tenant advocacy director and Michael Donnelly is the tenant advocacy coordinator for the Fair Housing Action Center of Maryland, a program of the Maryland Consumer Rights Coalition.