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Mobtown Beat

Taking Rent Court to Court

ACORN Organizes a Rent Strike To Draw Attention to The City’s Slumlord Problem

Frank Klein
PAYBACK TIME: Tenants across Baltimore have united with ACORN to combat landlords who keep their properties in subpar condition.

By Stephen Janis | Posted 6/8/2005

If you rent an apartment or home in Baltimore City, you have a pretty good chance of ending up on the rent court docket. Or at least that’s what the statistics suggest, according to a March 2003 report by the Abell Foundation titled “A System in Collapse.” In 2000, landlords filed a whopping 160,995 complaints against tenants in rent court—more cases than rental units in the entire city.

But rent court might soon be an agent for change, if an aggrieved group of city tenants, working in conjunction with the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) have their way.

ACORN organizers say that the city’s rent court is pretty efficient when it comes to helping landlords collect rent. Unlike in other municipalities, Baltimore landlords are not required to give tenants notice for overdue rent before filing a claim. Nor do they have to allow a grace period before filing. They can sue for back rent and start the eviction process just one day after the first of the month. Add to this the lowest filing costs in the country (just $9, compared to $23 for Washington, D.C, the next highest) and you have what the Abell report calls “a collection agency for the convenience for the landlords” and a probable contributor to the highest eviction rate in the country: 5.81 evictions per 100 renters in 2000, the highest per capita for all cities nationwide.

With ACORN’s help, a group of disgruntled renters with a variety of problems with their apartments, from lead contamination to rodent infestation, are using rent court to fight back. They are filing rent-escrow cases, in which a tenant dissatisfied with the conditions of an apartment can deposit rent in escrow account with the court rather than pay it to his or her landlord, en masse. It’s part of a collective action that ACORN organizers are calling the Baltimore Rent Strike. Mitch Klein, ACORN’s head local organizer, says the purpose of the strike is simple: “We’re going to break the back of rent court.

“The landlords are the only industry in this town that has their own publicly funded collection agency,” Klein says. “We’re going to put a stop to it. If enough people stop paying rent, things will change.”

The strategy, ACORN attorney Kirk Arthur says, is to use the rules of the court to force landlords to make repairs, refurbish aging apartments, or simply pay attention. “Putting rent in escrow forces the landlord to make repairs if they want to collect rent,” he says. “Technically landlords cannot collect escrow funds until the court approves the repairs.”

The goal is, Klein says, to have 200 such cases filed by the end of June.

The tenants participating in the rent strike are not as concerned with the vagaries of law pertaining to rent court as they are with the conditions they say make their apartments uninhabitable. Shanel Williams, 19, says her one-bedroom apartment off of Cold Spring Lane in the Northwood Apartments complex has been hazardous to both her and her 7-month-old son Dartanyan.

“When we brought him home in October, we didn’t have any heat, so we had to leave the oven on to stay warm all winter long,” Williams says. “Then I found mouse droppings in my son’s bassinet.” Add this to unsafe lead levels in her kitchen, cockroaches, and dozens of unfilled promises to make repairs by management, and Williams decided it was time to act.

“It’s so unjust,” she says. “I felt like I had to do something.”

Linda Armstrong, another tenant in Northwood, says she spent the winter without heat, which aggravated her acute rheumatoid arthritis. She hopes the rent strike will be effective for tenants like her who have had enough of dealing with bad landlords.

“I know this will work because people are just tired of living the way they’re living,” she says.

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