Sam Cogen promises that his win over a three-decade incumbent for Baltimore sheriff is also a win for tenants facing eviction.
Cogen, who became the Democratic nominee when the final votes trickled in on Friday, ran on a platform to modernize the sheriff’s office — a significant shift from incumbent John W. Anderson, who refused to have a computer in his.
Central to the former high-ranking sheriff deputy’s platform was a promise to “humanize” the city’s eviction process — which is ordered by the court but executed by the sheriff — by providing tenants with adequate notice of court and removal dates; confirming that a building is licensed as a rental property before enforcing an eviction there; connecting tenants facing eviction with opportunities for assistance; and collecting and publishing data on evictions that could help inform policy.
Anderson has come under repeated fire by housing advocates and city officials for exacerbating the harms of eviction. And the absence of such practices in his office has led to the forcible removal of many tenants from their homes with no opportunity to contest their eviction in court and little, if any, time to find another place to stay.
“On the one hand, we have to execute these orders, but the way we execute them and the services we can try to provide to try to mitigate the harm that it does — it’s why you have an elected sheriff in my opinion,” said Cogen, whose nomination likely secured him the job because he is the only candidate currently on the ballot with no Republican running in the general election. “So we’re not just pushing paperwork.”
When Taylor Jackson, 25, arrived at her Station North home after work on February 9, she was shocked to find that her locks had been changed. When she called her landlord, he told her that she had been evicted.
Though she says she never received a notice, her landlord had filed the eviction back in July, after Jackson had withheld rent for around six weeks in an attempt to compel her landlord to repair the dishwasher that constantly flooded, causing mold, and install lights in the dark entryway she felt unsafe passing through at night. She was caught up on rent by the time of her court date in December, but it didn’t matter — without notice of the eviction, she missed her day in court. The judge handed her landlord the judgement.
“I didn’t know what to do,” said Jackson, recalling that evening she found herself locked outside of her apartment. “I didn’t have any clothes, I didn’t have any food, I didn’t have anything for an entire month.”
“I didn’t even have a phone charger,” she added.
When she brought her case to a legal aid attorney, he discovered that the landlord hadn’t had a valid rental license for the property when he evicted Jackson.
Efforts to reach Jackson’s former landlord were unsuccessful.
Evictions like Jackson’s spurred City Council members to grill Anderson about his office’s approach to enforcement during June budget hearings.
In particular, councilmembers questioned the sheriff’s failure to check whether landlords have valid rental licenses before enforcing eviction orders on the landlords’ behalf, which one council member derided as a “big loophole for slumlords.” They also pressed him on the practice of leaving eviction notices in common areas like mailrooms and on apartment complex doors rather than on specific tenants’ doors, which tenants like Jackson may not see, contrary to a 2001 opinion by the Attorney General issued at Anderson’s request.
Anderson and his team countered that the AG’s opinion is not law and that sheriff’s deputies often struggle to access individual units when landlords fail to provide them with keys.
Council members rebuffed Anderson’s explanations, eventually cutting $500,000 from the office’s budget in an effort to send a message.
Cogen, who observed quietly from an audience seat, having left the sheriff’s office the previous fall, says that he heard the message loud and clear.
Under his leadership, he said, the sheriff’s office will post eviction notices only on tenants’ doors, and will share court dates with tenants over the phone. And for every eviction order, his office will check the address against a list of unlicensed properties maintained by the Department of Housing and Community Development. His office will send eviction orders for tenants at unlicensed properties back to the court for review, and will pursue enforcement action against landlords who they find to have misrepresented their licensure or safety certifications on official documents.
Cogen said he believes his office also has a role to play in preventing evictions, by attaching information about rental assistance and legal aid to eviction notices and by hiring a social worker or two to connect people who are evicted with city resources.
Cogen said his office would also create an electronic database to track evictions with the aim of helping policymakers and housing advocates push for changes to eviction policy.
“Just from a common sense perspective, does it make sense for someone to get evicted for $300 rent that they owe? What’s the cost to society? Maybe we need to look at some policy to address that,” said Cogen. “And from a public safety perspective, housing instability is a risk factor for delinquency,” he added.
A spokesperson for the Maryland Multi-Housing Association, a landlord industry group, declined to comment on Cogen’s proposals but said that the organization looks forward to working with him.
Council members critical of Anderson’s handling of eviction cases say Cogen’s approach is a welcome change.
“The sheriff that’s in charge should be leading with compassion, particularly with what’s been going on,” said councilmember Kristerfer Burnett.
Legal aid groups and tenant organizers in the city are optimistic about the change in leadership, too, if more cautiously.
“We need a different attitude from the sheriff’s office that provides just a little bit of fairness,” said Matt Hill, an attorney with the Public Justice Center who represents tenants facing eviction. “We’re hopeful, but I think folks have just been let down by so many elected officials who have broken their promises.”
There’s no reason he can’t make good on these promises, Hill said. “It just requires commitment and time and less worry about landlords as, like, clients of the sheriff’s office somehow.”
Cogen said that while he expects that his office’s approach to eviction enforcement will mitigate the harm done to people facing eviction, it will not necessarily lead to fewer evictions overall. While checking the building licensure will add time to the process, it’ll be balanced out by measures to reduce inefficiencies, he said, allowing his office to carry out the same number of evictions per day.
And some changes that tenant organizers say would make the eviction process easier for tenants are likely not possible given the large number of evictions filed everyday, Cogen said.
To really ensure that tenants are aware of their court and removal dates, sheriff’s deputies should be required to obtain a signature from tenants attesting that they received the notice, said Detrese Dowridge, a tenant organizer with Baltimore Renters United. She also suggested that it would be more effective for social workers to connect tenants with resources before they are evicted, rather than after. Providing such direct service to every person served with an eviction would likely be impossible, Cogen said, since Maryland’s rules for evictions means filings far exceed the number of people actually evicted.
He faces other limitations, too. For now, the sheriff’s office can help divert some evictions by including information about the federally funded emergency rental assistance program, but those funds are running dry.
His efforts to prevent evictions from unlicensed buildings will be made more difficult by the absence of similar efforts by the courts. Governor Hogan vetoed legislation this spring that would have prohibited unlicensed landlords from using the courts to remove tenants.
Housing advocates say that Cogen’s election, while far from a silver bullet in addressing the eviction crisis, is a step in the right direction.
“He’s still law enforcement,” said Charisse Lue, an attorney with the Public Justice Center, arguing that resources are better spent on eviction prevention. “But he does have a chance here to actually make a positive change and live up to what he was trying to change when he ran against Anderson.”