Baltimore City is likely to face a rising wave of eviction actions due to COVID-19 with no adequate relief on the horizon. The City has 125,000 renter households but annually has almost 140,000 eviction case filings resulting in approximately 70,000 eviction warrants and 6,500 evictions – an eviction rate almost 2.5 times the national average. While an eviction moratorium in Maryland has temporarily stopped evictions, the moratorium does not address the systemic imbalance of power between landlords and tenants that drive the high eviction rates. According to the Stout report, 96% of landlords have lawyers or specialized agents in eviction cases, while only 1% of tenants do.
Relying on data from agencies and nonprofits in Baltimore City and Maryland as well as a sample of Baltimore City eviction case files, Stout concludes that providing a right to legal representation to Baltimore City tenants who earn less than 50% of Maryland’s median household income is a proven, cost-effective means of stopping the disruptive displacement of families by eviction. According to Stout, 92% of represented tenants would avoid disruptive displacement with a right to counsel in Baltimore City. This translates to 5,777 households and 17,300 people each year.
In addition to the economic, educational, and health benefits that accrue to individuals and families from avoiding displacement, a right to counsel also results in significant economic benefits to the City and State. Namely, an annual investment of $5.7 million in a right to counsel for Baltimore tenants facing eviction would yield an estimated $35.6 million in benefits or cost savings to the City and State including:
A right to counsel in eviction cases has proven effective in stopping the disruptive displacement of families in other jurisdictions where it has been implemented. New York City began a phased implementation of a right to counsel in evictions in 2018. Evictions have since dropped 29% in zip codes where the right to counsel has been implemented, nearly double the rate of comparable zip codes without right to counsel. Other jurisdictions implementing right to counsel include Philadelphia, San Francisco, Cleveland, and Newark.
Baltimore City has allocated $13 million to rental assistance and eviction prevention in the wake of COVID-19, part of which will be used for increased legal representation for tenants in eviction cases.
The Stout report, prepared for the Public Justice Center with funding from the Abell Foundation, concludes that guaranteeing a right to counsel in eviction cases will not only level out the imbalance of power between landlords and tenants, but it will ensure many families can stay in their homes and save the city and state money. Using this report, the Public Justice Center, Jews United for Justice, the Md. Access to Justice Commission, Baltimore Renters United, and allies have launched a campaign for legislation to enact a right to counsel in Baltimore City.