Maryland’s eviction mill is also rigged by the fact that tenants, even when they try to fight back, usually appear in court without a lawyer — a mismatch against landlords who almost always enjoy representation by lawyers or agents. Unlike in criminal cases, where defendants enjoy a constitutional right to counsel, Americans may lose their home, their children, their savings — even their freedom, in civil commitment cases — without the benefit of legal assistance in court.
Throwing tenants out of their homes is so friction-free in Maryland that landlords annually file roughly four eviction notices for every five of the state’s rental units, a ratio with few if any equals elsewhere. The average filing fee for evictions nationwide is $120; in Maryland it’s $15, lower than in all but two states; other states require that landlords send notices to tenants before seeking court orders; Maryland doesn’t. The result: Maryland courts have become glorified collection agencies for landlords.
A few big cities, including New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Cleveland and, recently, Baltimore, have passed laws ensuring lawyers for tenants facing eviction. In New York, where the first such measure was enacted, evictions have dropped by a third. Yet despite fledgling efforts, no state has yet adopted such a statute — though one has been introduced in Annapolis for the coming legislative session.
The pandemic may turn a bad deal for tenants into a dire emergency. A patchwork of local, state and federal bans on evictions has shielded some tenants, but the broadest one, issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last year, is set to expire at the end of this month. That could unleash a tsunami of new filings by landlords intent on ejecting nonpaying tenants, whose ranks have swelled along with soaring unemployment.
At the same time, in Maryland, officials have scrambled to find stopgap funding for the state’s Legal Services Corp., which gives grants that provide legal help for low-income residents, including some tenants fighting eviction. The organization’s revenue stream, having relied on court fees and other sources shrunk by the pandemic, has been decimated.
Attorney General Brian Frosh (D) has put forward a sensible fix. He proposes raising the filing fee for evictions by about $100, to roughly the national average, forbidding landlords from shifting that cost to tenants, and earmarking the resulting revenue, about $40 million, to Legal Services. That would help deter hair-trigger evictions and ensure that more low-income tenants and others get assistance in court if they want it. In a state where the legal playing field has been mercilessly skewed in landlords’ favor — not least because some powerful lawmakers have benefited from landlords’ political donations, or are landlords themselves — that would restore some balance to a system that badly needs it.