Few scenes reveal urban malaise so visibly and vividly as a sidewalk piled high with broken-down chairs, tables, blankets, mattresses—the furnishings of a life. This dismal experience, so common in Baltimore City until last October, represented the last step in an eviction system in collapse, with unhappy consequences for the tenant who had been evicted, the landlord who had obtained the eviction order, the neighborhood that was littered—and the City of Baltimore and State of Maryland as unwitting enablers. “Public disposal of the remains of an eviction is not only a public indignity to the tenant who has suffered the eviction, but a blighting influence on the neighborhood,” says Dan Pontious, policy director of Citizens Planning and Housing Association (CPHA).
There were more than 7,000 such scenes in Baltimore City in 2006. The saddest aspect of the experience was probability: A March 2003 Abell Report found that on average, a tenant family in Baltimore was being sued for eviction 1.2 times per year, a rate nearly double or triple than if it rented in Washington, DC; Detroit; or Cleveland. The research showed that Maryland’s eviction process was markedly different from other states; it requires less responsibility for landlords to notify tenants and to store and dispose of belongings following evictions. Three full-time crews were employed by Baltimore City’s Department of Public Works to follow every eviction and pick up and dispose of items at a cost to city taxpayers of more than $1 million each year.
In response to the issues raised in The Abell Report, the Public Justice Center (PJC) and the CPHA, with funding from The Abell Foundation, worked together to organize tenant and neighborhood groups and set a public agenda to change the process of evicting residential tenants in Baltimore City. The two organizations played complementary roles with the PJC focusing on outreach to tenants and tenant organizations, and the CPHA focusing on outreach to neighborhood groups. The PJC organized the Rental Housing Coalition, which ultimately involved 25 tenant groups, advocacy organizations, and neighborhood associations, and became an effective voice for the shortcomings of the eviction process and the impact of eviction chattel on neighborhoods.
Last year, policymakers in the city began to signal interest in reforming the eviction process. Mayor Sheila Dixon’s transition report highlighted elimination of eviction chattel from public streets as a priority for the new administration. After taking office, the mayor assigned the city solicitor to form a workgroup of landlords, tenant advocacy groups, and community leaders to address this issue, and the late Councilman Kenneth N. Harris, Sr. followed with the introduction of city council legislation.
In August 2007, the Baltimore City Council passed landmark legislation called the “Clean Streets” bill, based on the principles advocated by the organizations. The legislation mandates landlords provide a two-week advance notice to the tenant of the exact date of eviction, requires landlords to dispose of all items remaining in the rental unit, and prohibits tenant belongings from being placed in the street following eviction.
“The Clean Streets bill was an historic compromise between landlords, tenants, communities, and the city,” says John Nethercut, executive director of the PJC. “It represents the power of building coalitions between interest groups that often do not work together.”
The PJC has worked with the district court judges and clerks, the sheriff’s office, the city solicitor’s office, and eviction prevention programs to ensure compliance. It wrote and published a brochure entitled “Evictions in Baltimore City: Procedures for Tenants and Landlords,” informing tenants and landlords of their rights and responsibilities under the new law. Daily announcements are made in district court to tenants and landlords, and the Baltimore Neighborhoods, Inc. hotline answers questions from landlords and tenants. The CPHA has met with neighborhood groups to inform them of the changes in the law and to encourage reporting of noncompliance and illegal dumping.
Although landlords filed a similar number of court complaints for nonpayment of rent from October 2007 through April 2008 compared with the same period the year before, the Baltimore City Sheriff’s Office reports that:
“The notice appears to be working,” says Nethercut. “Despite similar numbers of tenants falling behind in rent, more are either finding the money to stay or moving out before they need to suffer through an eviction.”
Since it took effect October 1, 2007, Baltimore City’s new “Clean Streets” ordinance has been successful in eliminating public dumping and the public expense of cleaning up after evictions. Through April of this year, the ordinance has kept 743 tons of evicted tenant belongings off the street, according to information from the City Department of Public Works and the sheriff’s office. “Already we can see that this new policy has been a relief to neighborhoods across Baltimore,” says Pontious of the CPHA. “While we need to be vigilant in enforcing the law, Mayor Dixon and the entire city council should be proud of enacting an ordinance that brings greater dignity and cleaner streets to Baltimore City.”
There has been only one instance of illegal dumping as a result of an eviction, for which the landlord was subject to a fine of $1,000 a day. The elimination of Public Works sanitation costs and landfill costs associated with chattel pickup and disposal is expected to save the city $1 million annually. The Abell Foundation salutes the PJC and the CPHA on the eviction reform initiative, as well as PJC executive director John Nethercut, former executive director Michael Sarbanes, and policy director Dan Pontious from the CPHA for their work in helping to bring about the “greater dignity and cleaner streets” to Baltimore City.