After a yearslong legal battle, a Baltimore artist and community organizer who fought their 2020 eviction left their Station North apartment for good on Friday, ending a historic landlord-tenant disagreement in Maryland that ultimately spurred changes to state law.

Indigo Null, a photographer and creative who faced economic hardship during the coronavirus pandemic, had lived in the storied Copycat building in the city’s arts district since 2015. The building’s owners filed for eviction against Null and several other tenants during the pandemic-inspired 2020 eviction “moratorium” designed to keep renters in their homes. Null challenged the move in court because the owners lacked a rental license.

City law prohibits unlicensed landlords from charging or collecting rent, but the Copycat owners filed a different kind of eviction case that didn’t hinge on Null’s failure to pay. Instead, attorneys argued that Null’s month-to-month lease had ended and the unit needed to be cleared.

Indigo Null, a tenant at the Copycat who challenged their 2020 eviction and has been living in the building rent-free ever since, is finally being forced out of their home. Indigo is shown here before delivering a jar of keys to the landlord. (Kirk McKoy/The Baltimore Banner)

That type of eviction case, called tenant holding over, spiked in volume during the initial months of the coronavirus pandemic as failure-to-pay rent cases largely stopped being heard in court. Null’s experience helped catalyze a new state law that requires landlords who evict tenants be licensed in jurisdictions where rental licenses are needed. It took effect in October 2023.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Null’s case advanced through the Maryland judiciary starting in 2020, ultimately ending this past fall.

Null’s attorney, Samantha Gowing from the city-based Public Justice Center, said while Null won the initial eviction case at the district court level, a new court case was initiated in October 2022. The trial court ruled in Null’s favor in January 2023, finding that the Copycat had not provided the tenant proper notice to vacate the unit. But on appeal, the court sided with the landlord.

Representatives from Copycat did not respond to a request for comment, nor did the owners’ attorney, Christopher Merrill, of McNees Wallace & Nurick LLC in Towson. A previous attorney, the late Herbert Burgunder III, told The Baltimore Sun in 2020 that Charles Lankford, who bought the building in the 1980s, dedicated his life to providing an inclusive bastion for city artists. The building is now owned by The Copycat Building LLC, which is registered to Lankford’s son, John Brice Lankford, according to online property records.

Complicating matters, the owners still lack a valid rental license for the building, according to an online database hosted by the Baltimore City Department of Housing & Community Development. Sheriff Sam Cogen directed deputies not to go through with the eviction earlier this week due to the newly enacted state law requiring proof of licensure, online court records show, but Maryland District Court Judge L. Robert Cooper ruled that it was not the sheriff’s role to question the “integrity” of the court’s judgement.

“It is clear that failure to follow the court’s order is contempt of the court’s order and if [the] sheriff’s office continued to defy the court, the court may not extend the courtesy of a simple hearing,” according to the online docket. On Thursday, the sheriff’s office instructed Null to have everything packed — nearly 10 years’ worth of belongings, including those leftover from other roommates and friends — by Friday at noon.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Indigo Null, a tenant at the Copycat who challenged their 2020 eviction and has been living in the building rent-free ever since, is finally being forced out of their home. Null holds a sign the reads “Happy Pride! You're Evicted.” (Kirk McKoy/The Baltimore Banner)

Null and their roommates haven’t paid rent since 2020, they said, and estimate they owe more than $100,000 combined.

Null said they would have paid had the owners been willing to negotiate or hold off on demanding payment. But Null said they were continuously denied, and meanwhile, the conditions and morale in the building have only worsened since 2020.

”It feels personal,” Null said about the eviction. “Most of my friends have already left. It’s like, not only will we destroy your community, we also won’t acknowledge you as a human being.”

The Copycat building has long been considered a local treasure. A former Crown Cork & Seal factory that made bottle-capping machinery, Lankford purchased it 1983 converted it into an artist’s space. Traces of the factory’s past are still evident. The district eventually was rezoned to accommodate the Copycat’s tenants, who had illegally taken up residence there, according to Baltimore Heritage, a nonprofit group dedicated to preservation and history.

Artists there had broad freedoms to play music, paint and decorate. Null said the building offered community to trans and queer people, as well as people from different races, ethnicities, backgrounds and political beliefs. Null recalled spending weekends bouncing around from floor to floor, socializing and meeting new and interesting people in every apartment. It became an important stop on the journey of many beloved Baltimore-bred artists and performers, including Dan Deacon and the Wham City arts collective.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Touring musicians and small acts always had a place to stay at the Copycat, Null said; their own unit contained an extra bunk bed. For artists, especially those with limited means, it was a haven.

Indigo Null, a tenant at the Copycat who challenged their 2020 eviction and has been living there rent-free ever since, is finally being forced out of their home.  One last look up at the loft Indigo leaves with partner Truman Holman.
Indigo Null, a tenant at the Copycat who challenged their 2020 eviction and has been living in the building rent-free ever since, is finally being forced out of their home. With one last look up at the loft, Null leaves with partner Truman Holman. (Kirk McKoy/The Baltimore Banner)

Null and a roommate, Malcolm, are moving to a rowhouse near Remington with their cats, Dracula and Toki. Already, Null worries about the new place, which experienced a leak during a recent storm. But with a new eviction on their record, they found it difficult to secure another option in their price range, Null said.

It’s not clear what the Copycat’s future entails.

On Friday, Null, who now works as a tenant organizer for Baltimore Renters United, was escorted out of the building and was informed that returning to the premises would be considered trespassing. They have concerns about their future, but even more about tenants who weren’t offered the same access to legal counsel or given as much time to fight their cases.

“People are not making enough money to survive and there is no apartment you can rent within your means that is safe,” Null said. “People call me, and I tell them what their rights are and how to form a union. But even I am in this position. What am I supposed to say?”

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

As for state law, more protections for renters will be considered this year in the Maryland General Assembly, including a bill requiring landlords to provide “just cause” for evictions. Gov. Wes Moore’s office will support legislation that increases eviction filing fees, creates an Office of Tenant Rights and restricts security deposit fees. It also would bar evictions during extreme weather events, states of emergencies and, notably, public health crises.

Null also plans to push for another bill that would allow tenants to recover their belongings after an eviction date — even after turning in their keys, closing the door and walking away for the last time.

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.

More From The Banner