Just after 10 a.m. Wednesday, a small group of demonstrators gathered outside Baltimore City District Court with a message for the city’s housing authority: “Halt evictions now.”

“Fight, fight, fight,” they chanted, signs in the air. “Housing is a human right.”

Within a few hours, the activists got their wish: The Housing Authority of Baltimore City had dismissed the nearly 200 eviction cases against public housing tenants set to be heard that day.

The dismissals followed criticism of the planned evictions by members of the Baltimore Renters United coalition, which includes housing advocacy groups, legal organizations and nonprofits. During a routine monitoring of the district court docket this month, the group noticed hundreds of eviction cases scheduled in May against tenants living in Baltimore public housing properties alleging nonpayment of rent. Those facing eviction lived in public housing complexes or resided in scattered site properties throughout the city.

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As tenants began appearing before judges last week, the rent court monitors noticed several other alarming trends. Many tenants said they had not spoken with attorneys, despite a city law guaranteeing people the right to counsel in eviction proceedings. Applications for rent recertification and hardship exemptions, which can reduce how much a renter owes, had gone unanswered, they said. And tenants who had requested to pay rent in installments had either been ignored or offered “unreasonable” payment plans, according to the coalition, despite guidance from the federal government urging public housing authorities to be flexible and reasonable with tenants seeking repayment agreements.

The relief was short-lived: By Thursday, housing authority spokeswoman Ingrid Antonio said, the organization was planning to refile all of the cases, which were vacated on a “technicality.” Antonio did not provide details about the technicality nor respond to tenants’ concerns and allegations, but said rent collection has been “an ongoing issue” since before the coronavirus pandemic.

The dismissals — however temporary — represented a win for members of the city’s housing justice community, who say many in Baltimore are at risk of becoming homeless as eviction filings tick back up to pre-pandemic volumes. At the same time, rent relief sources have dried up following a record influx of federal and state funding meant to stave off evictions during the public health emergency, which officially ended this month. And national moratoriums on evictions have expired.

But even as the worst of the pandemic recedes from view, some are still struggling to rebound after a challenging few years.

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Jacqueline Thompson, who said she has been a tenant of the housing authority’s for more than 30 years and has been living in her home for 18 years, owes about $13,000 in unpaid rent. She had applied to two different organizations for rent relief but learned just last week from her housing manager that she would only be eligible for one of them.

“It’s like, you don’t even stand a chance,” Thompson said. She lost her job during the pandemic and fell deeper and deeper in debt as she searched for a new one. Now she has a job, she said, but she won’t be able to pay back the $13,000 by the time the eviction notice comes. She said no other relief options have been discussed.

Detrese Dowridge, lead tenant organizer and steering committee member for Baltimore Renters United, said the volume of rent cases filed this month coupled with the concerns voiced by tenants in court have raised a “red flag.”

“With rental assistance drying up … there’s really no other good alternative for tenants to catch up on rent, and some tenants are still suffering from when they lost their jobs,” Dowridge said before being notified that the day’s eviction cases had been dismissed.

Later on, Dowridge said she also did not know why the cases were dismissed but believes the housing authority realized the need to “look through their records” before proceeding.

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A Baltimore Banner data analysis published in January found that 2022 had a rapid uptick in evictions statewide, especially during the summer months. And more than half of the state’s 24 jurisdictions had more eviction filings in August and September 2022 than they did during that same two-month period in 2019, before the pandemic. In the city, the rate of people being forcibly removed from their homes was nearly double that of the statewide rate, the analysis found.

Mayor Brandon Scott controls an excavator during the demolition of one of the remaining former Perkins Homes buildings, paving the way to start the construction of Perkins Phase III, Wednesday, April 26, 2023.
Mayor Brandon Scott operates an excavator on Wednesday, April 26, 2023 during the demolition of one of the remaining former Perkins Homes buildings, paving the way to start the construction of Perkins Phase III. (Jessica Gallagher/The Baltimore Banner)

Demand for affordable housing in Baltimore far exceeds supply. The authority’s public housing waitlist is closed to new applicants. The city produced fewer affordable housing units in fiscal year 2022 than it did the prior two years before, according to fiscal year 2024 budget records. And it can take up to three months to find housing for individuals experiencing homelessness, according to the Mayor’s Office of Homeless Services.

The housing authority is ushering through a massive, multiphase development project that aims to revitalize the neighborhood surrounding the now-demolished Perkins Homes public housing complex with more than 2,000 mixed-income units. The extensive undertaking will replace all those Perkins units, but not the nearby Somerset Court public housing units that were razed about a decade ago. All units are expected to be completed by 2030.

Ahead of the city’s annual taxpayer night Thursday, advocates from Baltimore Renters United and others plan to gather outside City Hall to request more budget money for emergency rental assistance, city housing inspectors and right-to-counsel funding. In all, they are seeking just under $30 million.

This story has been updated with comments from a housing authority spokeswoman.

hallie.miller@thebaltimorebanner.com

Hallie Miller is a reporter at The Baltimore Banner, where she hopes to dive deep into the city's communities and highlight solutions. She is passionate about engaging readers and using new tools to tell stories. Hallie spent four years at The Baltimore Sun, where she helped lead the organization's medical coverage of the coronavirus pandemic. 

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