At The Forest apartment complex in Glen Burnie, the third Thursday of the month is a date that residents dread.

It’s eviction day: the culmination of a monthly cycle of anxiety for many tenants of the sprawling 954-unit brick apartment complex — a hotbed of Maryland’s eviction crisis.

Recent third Thursdays have found Leshell Wallace on the precipice of eviction, scrambling to pay the $1,250 monthly rent for her two-bedroom apartment. It’s among the cheapest in Glen Burnie — in Anne Arundel County for that matter. But for Wallace, a single mother of three working as a server and bartender, and for many of her neighbors, the finances just don’t pencil out. And once residents fall behind, late fees and eviction filing fees tacked on by their landlord, Cockeysville-based Hendersen-Webb Inc. make catching up feel like an insurmountable feat.

The Forest has filed at least 6,344 eviction cases in the past 52 months, likely an undercount because dismissed cases don’t get entered into public records. Yet records show Hendersen-Webb has filed at least six evictions for each unit at The Forest since 2019, according to a Baltimore Banner analysis of electronically available failure-to-pay-rent cases.

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One in three evictions at all large multifamily apartment complexes in the county takes place in the 1.5 square miles of monotonous apartment complexes around the University of Maryland Medical Center where The Forest is located, according to the Banner analysis.

The complex is a focal point of a crisis facing low-income tenants throughout Maryland. Here, yellow eviction notices can be seen posted to buildings and street corners that are frequently piled high with evicted tenants’ belongings. The population includes a high number of single mothers and Black women, who are caught at the breaking point of the affordability crisis: The lowest prices in the county are still out of reach.

The three complexes that make up The Forest have three of the four highest eviction filings rates in the county. On average, Hendersen-Webb files evictions for 13% of its units each month. Before the pandemic upended business as usual, it filed against 28% of its units each month.

Evicted residents' belongings sit on the side of the road at one of the Glen Burnie apartment communities that make up the Hendersen Webb Inc.-owned The Forest, in Glen Burnie, Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2022. (Jessica Gallagher/Jessica Gallagher)

Evictions happen most often in parts of the county where a larger share of the population is Black and a larger share of households with children are led by a single female. About 40% of the population here is Black, more than twice the county average. The percent of households with children led by a single female is nearly four times higher.

Hendersen-Webb did not return repeated calls and emails requesting comment.

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The court system “is the only legal remedy for a housing provider when a resident has breached their lease, refused to leave after the lease has ended, or hasn’t paid their rent,” wrote Aaron Greenfield, director of government affairs for the Maryland Multi-housing Association.

On the third Thursday in March, Wallace stood behind a long line of fellow residents, all waiting to pay their rent at a nondescript teller window appended to one of the apartment buildings. Her stomach churned as the clock ticked closer to 10 a.m., when the hauling crews and sheriff’s deputies would begin their march through the complex, lugging mattresses, furniture, and clothing out of apartments and onto the curb. Sometimes the haulers show up on a Tuesday of the third week instead, sending residents rushing to the teller window.

In her three years at the complex, Wallace has received eight eviction notices. Like many of her neighbors, she has always managed to pull the money together by eviction day, taking advantage of a state law that allows renters to “pay and stay” in each of their units up to three times in a year, even after an eviction judgment has been issued against them. In March, it took working extra shifts at her job at Buffalo Wild Wings, receiving assistance from a church and cashing in a bucket of loose change collected over the years. In the few hours she wasn’t working in the run-up to eviction day, she surveyed her apartment, categorizing the possessions she would take and those she would leave for hauling crews to toss out.

“We’re adults — we all know you can’t live somewhere for free. But people like myself — if I don’t have it all, I’ll at least give you half,” said Wallace. “I don’t want my kids to come home from school and all our stuff is out on the street.”

Eviction ripple effect

The impacts of evictions ripple throughout the apartment buildings, even among residents who have kept up on rent payments.

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An Uber driver said he was troubled to find yellow eviction slips posted for his elderly neighbor for two months after the neighbor had died. A woman in one basement apartment let a friend from the building across the street stay with her for months after she was evicted. Another became the begrudging caretaker of two dogs after her daughter’s friend and her mother were evicted, with nowhere to bring their pets.

In November, word spread through the complex about the eviction of a Black single mother who arrived home from work on eviction day — which was bumped up to two days before Thanksgiving — to find her belongings on the curb, even though she’d caught up on her rent that morning, as The Banner reported in November.

Essence Bennett goes through her cousin, Sharnae Hunt, belongings after being wrongfully evicted, at Tall Pines apartment, in Glen Burnie, Tuesday, November 22, 2022.
Essence Bennett goes through the belongings of her cousin, Sharnae Hunt, who was wrongfully evicted at Tall Pines apartments in Glen Burnie, Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2022. (Jessica Gallagher/The Baltimore Banner)

“You come home from work and you’ll see people’s stuff out, just piled up on the corner,” said resident Kay Johnson, who has seen her neighbors’ furniture and valuables thrown out into rain, snow, and mud during her four years at the complex. “Sometimes you’ll see them going out there with their kids, going through their things trying to save whatever they can.”

Johnson, a billing agent at an urgent care clinic, has received 25 eviction notices for “failure to pay rent” since moving into the complex. The filings come with a cost: a 5% late payment fee and often court filing fees, too. Tenants are entitled to a notice of their landlord’s intent to file an eviction 10 days prior, thanks to a 2021 state law, but tenants interviewed by The Banner said they had never received one from Hendersen-Webb.

Johnson and her neighbors’ experience with repeat eviction notices is hardly unique in Anne Arundel County.

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A Baltimore Banner analysis of electronically available failure-to-pay-rent cases in the county last August found that nearly a fifth of the more than 27,000 renters who had received an eviction filing since 2019 had received five or more of them during that time. The failure-to-pay-rent cases make up 57% of all civil cases since 2019.

Since the end of August, failure-to-pay-rent cases are on the rise. They make up 61% of cases filed. Hendersen-Webb has played a large part in that increase, but evictions are increasing at many of the county’s large multifamily parcels. Filings are up year-over-year in 56% of Anne Arundel apartment complexes.

A well-oiled eviction machine

In Anne Arundel County, as in jurisdictions across Maryland, the eviction system relies on local law enforcement and courts to make it run. And they know The Forest well.

“We do more evictions in that area than in all of Anne Arundel county — it is our most concentrated number,” said Capt. Brian Andre with the Anne Arundel County Sheriff’s Office.

“There’s obviously something going on with those apartment complexes,” he said. “We don’t know what it is, but I wish we did, and I wish they would do something — because a lot of our manpower is spent and concentrated in those areas.”

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Andre would rather dedicate some of those resources to other areas of the county and non-eviction work. But “we have to do what the court orders us do,” he said.

At the District Court in Glen Burnie, tenants are often called up as a group based on their management company, lining up in the center aisle of the courtroom and proceeding one by one in front of the judge. Many tenants don’t show up — unable to take off work or find child care — and judges grant an automatic judgment to the landlord’s agent or attorney. While eviction proceedings can be costly for tenants, the base fee statewide for landlords to file an eviction is just $15, a low price some housing advocates say encourages landlords to use the system as a “collection agency.”

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic brought the well-oiled eviction machine to an unprecedented halt, as courts shut down for several months and proceedings remained delayed for months afterwards.

As courts reopened and eviction filings poured back in, tenants caught another break: tens of millions of dollars in government rental assistance funds. Anne Arundel County acted especially fast, establishing an eviction prevention program with funding from the county even before federal funding was available. This has meant that, since the pandemic first dropped quarterly filings to practically zero, sharp increases have generally tapered off in subsequent quarters.

But now, with federal funding having all but run out and only a minimal line for rental assistance in the state budget, the number of filings in the first quarter of 2023 has surpassed all other quarters since the pandemic began. Arundel Community Development Services, the nonprofit tasked with administering rental assistance in Anne Arundel, has reduced the amount that it provides tenants from $1.5 million at peak distribution to under $650,000 per month by March, limiting assistance only to residents who haven’t received funding previously and face imminent eviction.

“A year ago we were able to stop, I would say, the majority of evictions because we could get them help,” said Jennifer Clark, an attorney with Community Legal Services of Prince George’s County, which also represents clients in Anne Arundel County. “Now it comes down to: there’s really nothing we can do to stop the evictions.”

The county budget for the coming fiscal year includes an additional $1 million for rental assistance. Renesha Alphonso, a spokeswoman for County Executive Steuart Pittman, who was elected for a second term in November, wrote in an email to The Banner that while there’s some possibility of additional funding through the county’s affordable housing trust fund, his office is also focused on investing in creating and preserving affordable housing.

For low-income tenants like those at The Forest, more affordable housing can’t come fast enough: Rent has climbed precipitously — 5.6 percent each year for the last three years in Anne Arundel County, according to Erin Karpewicz, executive director of ACDS. The majority of apartments in the ZIP code where The Forest is located are priced at upwards of $1,400 a month, according to a study published earlier this year by the county planning office.

The competitive rental market has turned The Forest— where rents range from around $1,050 to $1,450 a month — into a housing option of last resort for many low-income tenants. Housing counselors frequently direct low-income tenants to the complex, said Mario Berninzoni, executive director of Arundel House of Hope.

“There’s just not a lot of places — there’s a few apartment complexes— that we can get our folks into,” said Berninzoni. “If they want to live in this area, these are the only options in town.”

The lack of options leaves residents to take what they can get, putting up not just with the constant threat of eviction but with mold, mice, bedbugs and leaks. Last summer, it took maintenance weeks to fix Wallace’s air conditioner, she said, leaving it so hot inside the third-floor apartment that she and her children fled to her boyfriend’s apartment. The rent was due anyway.

The cost of falling behind

And for tenants like Johnson with multiple eviction notices, the relatively cheap rent is deceptive: Late fees and eviction filing fees quickly drive housing costs up towards the county average.

“You’re adding on extra money when a person doesn’t have it to begin with,” said Johnson, who added that stress over the constant threat of displacement from the complex led her to abuse alcohol in recent years. Her landlord even tacks on extra charges if tenants pay late rent over the phone, or pay with more than one debit card. And, the company will sometimes add the current month’s rent onto the eviction filing for the previous month, so tenants have to come up with both at once to stay.

Residents of the five Glen Burnie apartment communities that makeup the Hendersen Webb, Inc.-owned The Forest wait to pay rent in lieu of eviction as sheriff's deputies prepare to begin evictions in Glen Burnie, Tuesday, November 22, 2022.
Residents of the five Glen Burnie apartment communities that make up the Hendersen Webb Inc.-owned The Forest wait to pay rent in lieu of eviction as sheriff's deputies prepare to begin evictions in Glen Burnie, Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2022. (Jessica Gallagher/The Baltimore Banner)

Eviction filing fees have come under scrutiny in Maryland in recent months. In January, Westminster Management, a property company co-owned by Jared Kushner, lost a lawsuit over similar “agent fees,” “summons fees” and excessive “writ” fees levied when tenants received an eviction filing. A Maryland appeals court sided with former tenants who claimed that these fees were charged in excess of a statewide cap on late rent fees of 5%, allowing thousands of former tenants to pursue class-action damages. In April, Westminster filed a petition to the Supreme Court to review the case.

Andrew Freeman, an attorney with Brown Goldstein & Levy who represented tenants in the lawsuit, said that charges for late rent beyond a 5% fee are “illegal unless and until a court awards those fees.”

“For working people who are struggling to pay their rent and put food on the table, it’s real money,” said Freeman about the fees. “And when Hendersen-Webb does it thousands of times a year, it’s real money for them as well.”

Johnson says the fees are the difference between being able to save for a security deposit for another apartment — if she could even find another place within her budget — and remaining stuck at the complex.

“It’s like you’re in a contract with the mob — how can I go find another apartment when I can’t even keep up with my rent because of all these extra fees they’re adding on?” said Johnson. “I just have nowhere to go at this point. My back is against the wall.”

Learn more about our analysis and reproduce our findings by visiting our GitHub page.

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