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House Passes Tenants Right To Counsel Bill

Rachel Baye
Maryland State House

The bill guarantees access to a lawyer for low income tenants facing eviction.

Maryland’s House of Delegates passed a bill Thursday aimed at helping the thousands of state residents who face eviction proceedings in rent court every year without a lawyer.

The bill would guarantee access to lawyers for Maryland tenants facing eviction who earn less than half the state’s median income, or less than $48,000. It would require the Maryland Legal Services Corporation to administer the program, which would be paid for in part with sharply increased filing fees in eviction cases.

It ran into a solid wall of opposition from Republicans, several of whom own rental properties and who complained of the costs it would create for landlords.

Del. Lauren Arikan, a Harford County Republican, said she would sell her rental property and invest in property across the state line in Pennsylvania.

Del. Matthew Morgan, of St. Mary’s County, complained that the bill would make it difficult for landlords to get rid of bad tenants, increase their costs and raise “the cost of housing for everyone.”

Minority whip Kathy Szeliga, who said she’s owned rental properties in Baltimore City and Harford County, argued that most landlords want to keep tenants in their properties while the bill makes them out to be villains.

“It makes it seem like the bad, mean property owners just want to evict people. And I want to tell you that's not true,” she said during debate on the bill.

Trent Kittleman, a Howard County Republican read a letter from constituents who are renting their home while deployed overseas and are worried that the bill would hurt them financially.

“I understand the times are tough,” the constituents wrote. “But not all landlords are making profit hand over fist. Some, like us, are just covering the bills until we return.”

Advocates argued that 96% of tenants facing eviction are not represented when they go to court while landlords are. But Del. Jason Buckel, an Allegany County Republican who has dealt with rental properties, said those representatives frequently are property managers or some other designee who is not a lawyer.

Rent court is “not this magical, mystery constitutional litigation,” he said, but a “very cut and dried” process.

Providing lawyers for tenants facing eviction could cost the state a lot of money, he warned.

A state analysis found that implementing the program could cost $28 million a year because of the sheer number of eviction cases—665,000--filed annually.

But Del. Wanika Fisher, a Prince George’s Democrat and sponsor of the bill, countered that the state could save $90.5 million a year in services to homeless families and foster care costs if more tenants could avoid eviction.

“These are also families and children and babies that are being evicted in our state,” she said.

The right to counsel isn’t a guarantee of staving off eviction, she said, but a fair shot, a chance for tenants to explain the situation, talk about whether the property is, in fact, habitable, and the “retaliatory actions of the landlord.”

“The data has shown that tenants will have a fighting chance in a system that is so skewed against them.”

Fisher said in her experience in rent courts in Anne Arundel and Prince George's counties, 80% of tenants have a valid defense.

Del. Sandy Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat, said even if the landlords’ representatives aren’t necessarily lawyers, tenants are in a tough spot.

“When the landlord is represented 96% of the time, and the tenant is represented only 1% of the time, those are bad odds,” he said.

Del. Luke Clippinger, another Baltimore Democrat, said the bill is aimed only at the worst property owners and their retaliatory evictions of the poorest tenants.

“These again, are people who are being retaliated against because they say there's lead paint in my house,” he argued. “Or they discover there's lead paint in their house, and it's not removed by the landlord.”

He said the bill “is well tailored” and “well targeted” and will “help the people who need it most.”

Joel McCord is a trumpet player who learned early in life that that’s no way to make a living.