Eviction notices taped onto doors and windows

For five years, Robert Trammel would routinely pass by his mailbox on the way out of his three-story, pale brick apartment complex in Anne Arundel County to find a yellow slip of paper Scotch-taped to his mailbox.

The notice was always the same: an order to appear in court for “failure to pay rent.” But by the time the court dates arrived, Trammel had already paid his rent, along with about $70 in eviction filing and late fees, he said. He stayed put.

Like many Maryland renters, Trammel is on the losing end of an eviction system that is cheap for landlords but can be expensive for tenants, burdening them with extra fees, hours spent in court, and potential stains on their credit records and rental histories. The base filing fee statewide is just $15, contributing to Maryland’s ranking as a top state for eviction filings in the country.

“They know you’ve been there. They know that you’re going to be there. But they still charge you that extra fee,” said Trammel, who lives in Arnold. “It raises the rent.”

In Anne Arundel County, a Baltimore Banner analysis of electronically available failure-to-pay-rent cases found that nearly a fifth of the more than 27,000 renters who had received an eviction filing since 2019 got five or more complaints during that time. Some residents had received as many as 30 eviction notices. The cases make up 57% of all civil cases since 2019.

The analysis also found that fewer than 2,250 of those cases resulted in eviction, revealing Maryland landlords’ widespread use of the court system as a tool for collecting rent — often with extra fees tacked on — rather than for actually removing tenants.

Statewide, Maryland landlords filed an average of about 23,000 evictions a month for nonpayment in the first half of 2022, according to state court system data. That’s far more than the state’s more populous neighbors: In Pennsylvania, landlords filed an average of 7,914 every month; in Virginia, they filed an average of 5,247, according to data from the Legal Services Corp.

Filing rates remain significantly lower than before the pandemic. Maryland landlords filed 671,000 evictions in 2019 — roughly 56,000 a month — in a state with just over 800,000 renter households, making Maryland the state with the highest filing rate in the country in 2018, according to data collected by the Eviction Lab at Princeton University.

But filings have increased since the beginning of the pandemic, and few guardrails are in place to prevent filing numbers from climbing back to their pre-pandemic heights.

“I can understand if a person doesn’t pay their rent or doesn’t even try to pay their rent,” said Trammel. He added that he pays his rent on the 19th of every month, after his Social Security check — which supplements his part-time income as a custodian at an elementary school and as a car detailer — arrives. “But somebody that’s paying their rent and at least making an effort to get it in there — why file an eviction?”

Recently, Trammel’s landlord agreed to forego the eviction filing, charging him a $40 late fee instead, Trammel said. His landlord declined to comment.

Housing advocates blame the low fees charged by the court to file for an eviction in Maryland for incentivizing landlords to overuse the process. Statewide, the fee is $15 plus an additional $5 per tenant, while in Baltimore the fee is $25 plus an additional $5 per unit. The average fee nationally for eviction filings is $112, according to Attorney General Brian Frosh.

“They use our courts as a collection agency,” said Frosh, a Democrat. “It costs $15, why wouldn’t they?”

Frosh’s office promoted a bill in the Maryland legislature this year that would have increased filing fees and prevented landlords from passing that additional cost onto their tenants. It never made it out of committee.

If landlords in Anne Arundel had paid the national average for filing fees since 2019, it would have cost them about $5.7 million more.

The vast majority of those cases are resolved when a tenant either moves out or pays their rent, taking advantage of statewide legislation that allows them to “pay and stay” in their unit, even after an eviction judgment has been issued against them. They can pay and stay up to three times in a year statewide, or four times in Baltimore city.

In Anne Arundel County, about 20% of cases were dismissed prior to scheduled court appearances by the renters. Fewer than 40% ended with a judgment in favor of the landlord. Just 3.3% ended in eviction. Data for the city of Baltimore is not available digitally.

Representatives for the apartment industry argue that increasing the filing fee or preventing landlords from recouping those costs from tenants wouldn’t discourage landlords from filing evictions. Instead, it would lead landlords to raise rents to cover those costs, said Adam Skolnik, executive director of the Maryland Multi-Housing Association.

He derided supporters of the higher fee for trying “to fine property owners for accessing the justice system,” he said. Receiving rent late or not at all places a financial burden on many landlords, he added.

Skolnik instead blamed the state’s high filing rates on what he called “tenant-friendly laws” that do not necessarily require renters to pay their entire rent balance to remain in their units — balances that may have grown by the time of their court date. This, he said, allows“tenants to forego paying rent for months on end.”

Landlords are able to request that they be awarded “future rent” when they file for an eviction, but Skolnik said some judges will not grant the full amount requested. Landlords are not able to update the requested amount, motivating them to file repeatedly to recoup the rest of what they’re owed, he said.

Matt Hill, an attorney who represents tenants, contended that judges often award future rent.

Even if the process enables many tenants to stay in their homes, residents and housing advocates say the routine filings by landlords place a strain on residents.

“You have to show up to court, take a day off work — it’s a serious economic problem for people who are at the bottom of the income scale,” said Frosh. In 2019, his office sued Westminster Management, an apartment management company co-owned by Jared Kushner, along with more than two dozen apartment companies that owned properties managed by Westminster, for various violations of tenants’ consumer protections. Those violations included using Maryland laws governing evictions “aggressively and, at times, illegally to collect rent from consumers.” The apartment management companies named in the lawsuit are not unique in their use of these tactics, Frosh said.

According to the lawsuit, the landlords use eWrit Filings, a third-party agency, to file hundreds of complaints against tenants for unpaid rent amounts of as little as $250 each month and to charge “court” and “agent” fees to tenants even if they get caught up on rent by their court date. In Anne Arundel, eWrit was listed as the landlord’s agent in one out of every four electronically available cases since 2019.

Trammel’s landlord used eWrit to file cases against him until 2020. At that point, A&G Management Co. had filed evictions against him for 31 of the 36 months he lived in their apartment.

Eviction filings on the rise after pandemic drop

Across the country, the pandemic brought a sharp drop in eviction filings. And Maryland was no exception. With court dockets restricted and rental assistance funds flowing, eviction filing numbers for failure to pay rent dropped by 96% in Maryland between February 2020 and June 2020.

But that pause didn’t last long.

Even with the federal eviction moratorium in place, monthly eviction filings for failure to pay rent climbed back up to 33,000 a month in October 2020, averaging more than 500 actual evictions per month through the remainder of the moratorium due to loopholes and temporary pauses in those protections. “None of the federal or state acts or orders were actually full moratoriums, although they were often referred to as such,” said Bradley Tanner, a public information officer for the Maryland Judiciary.

Amid concern about the public health risk of evictions during the pandemic, progressive lawmakers took advantage of the opportunity to implement reforms.

A statewide “access to counsel” provision has helped more renters gain legal representation. Before it passed, 90% of housing providers had legal representation, while 90% of tenants did not, according to a report by a task force created by the Maryland attorney general’s office. The program is expected to be fully funded by 2025.

Another reform, passed at the same time, requires landlords to provide tenants with 10 days notice before they file for an eviction with the court.

Those reforms have helped push monthly eviction filings back down to around 20,000 in the months since their passage. But many aspects of the system that generated upwards of 670,000 evictions a year before the pandemic remains intact.

And with pandemic protection measures suspended, many courts resuming full dockets, rents rising, and rental assistance funds running dry, advocates say there’s little to prevent filings from reaching previous highs again.

Legal aid groups across the state say that eviction courts have been packed with tenants and landlords in recent weeks. Attorneys have been overwhelmed by calls from tenants.

“Legal services are doing triage,” said Albert Turner, an attorney with the Public Justice Center, which represents tenants in eviction cases. Turner said “dockets are filled to the brim,” estimating that the number of people in the city’s rent court has doubled or even tripled in just the last few months.

Other types of eviction filings are on the rise, too. While filings for failure to pay rent have long been the most common type of eviction filing in Maryland, landlords are increasingly turning to other less regulated means.

In January 2019, landlords filed 233 “tenant holding over” cases — which a landlord can file when a tenant stays in their unit beyond the terms of their lease — compared to 607 in May of 2022.

The filing rate for these cases has steadily increased since failure-to-pay rent cases were restricted by federal and state eviction moratoriums in 2020. Tenant-holding-over cases were not restricted by the moratoriums.

By the time the courts began processing failure-to-pay cases again, some landlords realized that tenant holding over was a quicker legal process, because tenants don’t have the ability to “pay and stay” in those situations, said Andrew Rabinowitz, an attorney with Maryland Legal Aid.

On a Monday morning in late July, the seats of a first-floor courtroom of the Baltimore City District Court were nearly full. Many of the eviction cases on the city rent court’s docket were dismissed immediately, with neither the landlord nor the tenant present. Some landlords whose tenants failed to appear in court were given the green light to request a warrant for an eviction. Other cases were postponed, giving tenants more time to pay their owed rent.

One tenant, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation by her landlord, arrived at court with a manila folder stuffed with eviction notices and rental receipts. She’d never had an issue keeping up with rent before the pandemic, she said, but had fallen behind after losing work at her job at a casino during COVID shutdowns and having to support family members who had gotten sick with the coronavirus.

Emergency rental assistance covered months of back rent. But her landlord had refused to accept another three months of funding, instead filing for eviction based on nonpayment of rent — forcing her to appear in court nearly every week since June.

”I’ve missed work, I’ve missed pay to do this,” she said, as other tenants filed in and out of the courtroom. She’s worried, too, about the impact of the eviction filings on her ability to find a landlord willing to rent to her in the future.

”I’m uncomfortable in my home,” she said. “I don’t know, when I’m coming to court, if I’m going to be put out.”

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