The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Maryland is speaking out against a proposal that would offer more protections to renters seeking to challenge landlords in court over housing quality.

The Hon. Matthew J. Fader, an appointee of former Gov. Larry Hogan, said in a memo to lawmakers that several elements of the Tenant Safety Act bill “cause concern” and asked them to block it from advancing. At its core, the measure seeks to increase the number of “rent escrow” filings, or the number of tenants who pay rent to the court until landlords make needed repairs.

Fader’s testimony acknowledged the distinct and separate roles occupied by each of Maryland’s three branches of government and said he would defer to the legislature about public policy. But he also argued that the bill posed problems for the judiciary branch and would oppose the bill regardless.

The Tenant Safety Act, sponsored by Montgomery County Democrats Del. Vaughn Stewart and state Sen. Ariana Kelly, aims to hold housing providers accountable should they fail to make repairs in tenants’ living quarters in circumstances that threaten their health and safety, such as rodent infestation, lack of heat and sewage leaks. It proposes:

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

  • That tenants with the same problems and landlord can file a single rent escrow case;
  • That tenants can pay a reduced rent into escrow until repairs are made;
  • That tenants should get a break from past-due rent if the landlord refused to fix major defects;
  • That tenants recover attorney’s fees if they win;
  • That tenants with “serious and substantial” cases of mold in their homes can put their rent in escrow until repairs are made.

Stewart, at a rally in Annapolis about a week before Tuesday’s committee hearing, called the bill “shockingly simple.”

“It stands for the proposition that every single Marylander deserves a safe and healthy place to live,” Stewart said, adding that he has introduced the bill three times in three years.

Last year, it breezed through the House of Delegates, Stewart said, but it died a “quiet death” in the Senate.

“We allow folks to live in these unsafe, terrible conditions, conditions that we would not let any member of our family sleep in one night,” Stewart added. “And yet we let our neighbors live in these conditions every night, year after year, decade after decade.”

But Fader, in his opposition, laid out a number of problems with the bill language, calling parts of it “confusing and unworkable.”

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Among his complaints, he said lumping multiple cases together can “remove the needed discretion” to judge each case separately. He contended that standards for judging the severity of the mold were “vague and overly broad” and open to “varying interpretations and application.” And, Fader said, tenants already have defined legal processes when their homes aren’t fit to live in that are separate from rent escrow actions.

The Maryland Multi-Housing Association, which represents landlords who own more than 207,000 homes in the state, also testified against the bill, saying it would “dismantle” the existing procedure that balances tenant safety with housing providers’ responsibility. In testimony, Aaron Greenfield, the organization’s director of government affairs, said landlords also should be entitled to recover attorney’s fees in rent escrow cases. He also asked for the removal of the mold requirement as a General Assembly work group on mold remediation prepares to deliver recommendations later this year.

During the hearing, Stewart argued that the bill had been significantly amended from last year’s version to satisfy some of these complaints.

Later, several tenants testified that they faced problematic conditions at home, causing health problems, trauma and added expense. They argued that while they have faced penalties for missed rent, landlords are able to delay repairs without being similarly sanctioned.

A previous review of rent escrow filings by The Baltimore Sun found that only 6% of the cases reviewed resulted in rent abatement.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

The Tenant Safety Act is one of a handful of bills backed this year by a coalition of Maryland renters’ rights groups. Their other priorities include a measure that would distribute eviction-prevention funds to community schools; a proposal to provide 14 days’ notice of eviction to tenants and 10 days to recover their belongings; and a measure that would require landlords to state a “just cause” reason for not renewing a lease.