On a cold night in October 2023, Sade Green noticed her Bolton Hill apartment had not warmed up.

That was the final straw for Green, a mom to an infant daughter, who has been living at the massive high-rise building on the city’s west side since 2018. She’s compiled a laundry list of problems with the place — including the air conditioning system and rodents — and with help from a pro bono attorney, she filed a rent escrow case in Baltimore District Court in November, which allows tenants to withhold rent from landlords they allege haven’t made needed repairs.

It would take three court appearances over three months before the case resolved in Green’s favor. In the meantime, the property manager lent her a space heater to keep warm, and she started sleeping farther away from the windows at night and thinking more judiciously about when she could bathe her baby.

Green may have been successful, but by February, she still felt slighted. Yes, she had won back four months’ rent and gotten her landlord to make some needed repairs, but she worried that even a court win would do little to create lasting change, or fix all the problems, where she lives.

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“I’m not the only one who doesn’t have heat. I’m not the only one who doesn’t have air,” Green said. “I just think other people are scared if they go against them.”

Green’s experience echoes a common refrain from tenants’ advocates: Rent escrow has failed to keep up with the times.

State lawmakers are considering a bill in Annapolis during this year’s General Assembly session that aims to overhaul and make rent escrow more accessible. The measure has been introduced three times in three years, and advocates say they believe they have the senate committee votes to get it done now — if it’s called for a vote.

Attorneys, lawmakers and housing researchers have long held that only a fraction of tenants living in poorly maintained housing choose to use the court system to hold landlords accountable. Rent escrow, one of the most effective ways to encourage action from negligent housing providers, typically is reserved only for tenants who can prove that their home environments pose threats to their health and safety; other problems deemed non-life-threatening usually get dismissed, and even cases involving problems with mold usually are thrown out.

In Baltimore, where as many as half of all residents rent their homes, a bevy of safeguards have been instituted over the years to even the power balance among housing providers and tenants. City landlords, for example, must have up-to-date rental licenses in order to charge and collect rent, and they must give tenants two months’ notice if they decide not to renew a month-to-month lease. Another newly passed law also requires landlords to give their tenants the first offer on some rental homes before they go to market.

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Yet advocates say the scales still tip heavily in favor of housing providers, especially when it comes to housing quality.

Maryland judiciary data shows that in the fiscal year that ended this past June, property owners filed more than 74,000 cases against tenants behind on their rent, a first step toward eviction. Tenants, meanwhile, filed 1,745 rent escrow cases during that same period, with 40% of those cases coming from Baltimore. And only a small fraction of rent escrow cases usually result in rent abatement, according to a 2017 analysis by The Baltimore Sun.

“Imagine ... being forced to live in unsafe and unhealthy housing with no way to hold your landlord accountable,” said Jose Coronado-Flores, a research and policy analyst at CASA and a representative from the Renters United Maryland coalition, in a Monday statement to The Banner.

The coalition noted that legislators have dubbed this session as the “housing session” in Maryland, owing to a slew of bills crafted by lawmakers and by Gov. Wes Moore’s administration designed to buoy housing production and protect renters from abuse.

“In the ‘Year of Housing,’” the statement said, tongue-in-cheek, “Marylanders deserve more.”

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Tenants’ advocates say renters long ago lost faith in the court system to help remedy problems in their living situations. Many tenants fear retaliation and may not have the time or wherewithal to mount cases.

But substantially more can’t afford an escrow fund, which the court frequently requires to hear a case, said Katie S. Davis, Director of the Courtroom Advocacy Project at the Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland, which represents low-income clients.

For example, if a tenant stopped paying rent due to a hazardous water or sewage leak that never got fixed, a judge may order them to pay into an escrow account the full balance of the rent they owe — even if the tenant may have spent that money on cleaning supplies or temporary housing elsewhere.

“The law, as it is written, is not a good solution,” Davis said. “One of the biggest problems is with funding the escrow just to get the proceeding started.”

Davis said clients, especially those who have been living with poor housing conditions over a long-term period, may not have extra funds reserved outside of a fixed income to spend on court proceedings. Some may choose to ignore problems due to the scarcity of other affordable options available. And still others may fear spending all that money just for a case that might not go in their favor.

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“A huge number have potential rent escrow cases,” Davis said about her clients. “But only a very small amount file and sustain the case because they have to put in the amount they owe.”

The Tenant Safety Act of 2024, sponsored in the Maryland House of Delegates by several lawmakers, including representatives of Montgomery, Baltimore, Prince George’s and Howard counties, as well as Baltimore City, passed by a wide margin out of the House on Monday. If it were to become law, it would aim to increase rent escrow filings by reducing the amount tenants owe to the court at the start of the proceeding. It would also make it easier for tenants with the same problems or landlords to file a single case and enable tenants to recover attorney’s fees and costs if they win.

An initial version of the bill also would have allowed the court to consider mold in some rent escrow cases. But after opposition from Maryland’s top landlord lobbyist group and the chief justice of the state’s highest court — who argued that a state mold work group needed more time to study the topic — lawmakers struck that provision.

The Hon. Matthew J. Fader, in written testimony, also said the court would not be structurally equipped to handle the “new complex, multi-party type of action the bill would create.” In response to him and other opponents, the latest version of the bill clarifies that the court could still issue an order for separate trials and requires tenants to give adequate notice of the conditions or violations they seek to have remediated.

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Montgomery County Del. Vaughn Stewart, an attorney who has introduced the legislation over three consecutive General Assembly sessions, said at a rally last month that nearly 100,000 Marylanders, or 66,500 households, are thought to be living in “unsafe” conditions. Few can make change through the courts, he said.

“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 said. “And yet we let our neighbors live in these conditions every night, year after year, decade after decade. The Tenant Safety Act says: No more.”

For those with protracted fights against subpar housing, the legislation may help increase the pressure on landlords to act with more urgency. Many tenants have noted that they’ve been summoned to court over as little as one missed rent payment — but some have endured unsafe housing conditions for years.

In East Baltimore, Kisha, a tenant at the long-troubled Queen Esther apartment complex on Lanvale Street, said rent escrow resulted in another dead end in her fight for better housing.

Kisha, who asked to be identified only by her first name out of fear of retaliation by her landlord and property manager, has filed for rent escrow three times since 2019. The 41-year-old former high school athlete has developed breathing problems and asthma, which she attributes to mold and poor air quality in Queen Esther. Her doctor told her to move, she said, but leaving poses additional hurdles.

“It costs to put in applications, and I’m on a fixed income, so I can only put out so many applications in a month because I still have to eat, I still have to get the doctor’s appointments,” she said. ”It’s a struggle, but I have to do something because these living conditions is killing me. I’m paying them to kill me, and this isn’t fair.”

Kisha said the court has declined to hear about the mold. And other problems she’s encountered with the building — such as with its elevator, which lacks an up-to-date license — can’t be solved with rent escrow.

So tenants there have organized in other ways. They’ve held rallies, formed a tenant union, organized 311 calling campaigns and written letters to city and federal government officials. Finally, a representative from the New Jersey-based Radiant Properties, the complex’s latest owner, agreed to a meeting a few months ago and promised to get to work.

Kisha said she has slowly but surely started seeing some improvements, but not enough to satisfy her complaints.

Representatives from Radiant Properties declined an on-the-record interview.

While tenants in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods may be most vulnerable when it comes to challenging derelict property owners, those who rent in other, more affluent city neighborhoods haven’t been spared from housing casualties, either.

But these tenants have one clear advantage: They can move.

Melodi Wilkie, a therapist who rents an apartment in an old mansion in Mount Vernon, said a leak coming into her bathroom created a breeding ground for mold. Only when the ceiling began to cave in, she said, did the landlord call in the plumbers.

She considered filing a rent escrow case to encourage action about the mold, which still remains untreated, Wilkie said. But when she gave her landlord a choice between court action and an option to break the lease without penalty, he agreed to the latter.

Wilkie leaves in about two weeks and plans to move in with roommates in Northeast Baltimore. She’s grateful, she said, but she worries about her unit’s next tenant and her role in perpetuating the cycle.

“Maybe I should have gone through with the rent escrow process,” Wilkie said. “I feel protective over the next person. I want them to have a unit that is livable.”

WYPR reporter Emily Hofstaedter contributed this article.

Hallie Miller covers housing for The Baltimore Banner. She's previously covered city and regional services, business and health at both The Banner and The Baltimore Sun.

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