Repairing a Broken System: Jews United for Justice begins fight to ease life for renters in Baltimore

Baltimore Jewish Times
Daniel Schere
December 18, 2015

Read the original article here.

Baltimore’s chapter of Jews United for Justice has embarked on a new campaign aimed at removing obstacles tenants often face when going to rent court. The project, known as the 7,000 Families Campaign, comes in response to a report released this month by the Public Justice Center, which states that 7,000 is the number of families evicted due to unpaid rent.

The campaign kicked off on Dec. 8, when about 40 people, including 18 from JUJF, gathered at the corner of Fayette and Gay streets near City Hall to call for reforms to the court system that include better navigation of the process for renters and more accountability for landlords.

“People don’t know how the system works,” said JUFJ Baltimore director Molly Amster. “They need more help in navigating the court. People are not given enough notice to come up with a defense or even to take off work and secure childcare, and landlords are not held accountable for the conditions of the properties, which was actually why the court was created.”

Baltimore’s chapter of JUFJ was started in September 2014 and partnered with the Right to Housing
Alliance and Public Justice Center in attempting to reach a broad scope of affected populations, Amster said.

“We had a whole process with a committee of people who helped to vet different campaign options,” she said. “Rent court and police accountability were the two that came to our community meeting in March.”

The report, which was published with the help of the Abell Foundation, states that Baltimore’s eviction rate of 7,000 families out of 150,000 that come to rent court every year is second in the country to Detroit. The study also found that black women living on less than $2,000 per month in particular are disproportionately affected.

To help offset these trends, JUFJ and others have called for a 14-day pre-filing notice period for renters unable to pay their bill, giving them an opportunity for one more paycheck to come in and more time to seek legal counsel.

The report also found that a majority of residents surveyed experienced health or safety issues in their residence such as mold, lead, insect infestation or peeling paint. Most were unaware that they were entitled to reduced rent as a result — something Amster emphasizes is emblematic of a broken system.

“Part of the job of rent court is to maintain the quality of the housing stock in the city by holding landlords accountable, and right now it’s failing on that front,” she said.

Among those who addressed the crowd at the rally was Rabbi Daniel Cotzin Burg of Beth Am Synagogue, who is also involved in JUFJ.

“We understand that thousands of people who are being evicted, a few of them, some of them, deserve to be,” he said. “It’s important that we’re honest about that because the problem here is a systemic problem. This broken system has been on auto pilot for too long.

“This is a situation where we’ve been moving forward and forward and forward, and it’s not getting us anywhere good.”

Burg said he felt their campaign was “winnable,” and beyond the merits of the issue of affordable housing, there is a moral obligation for the Jewish community to get involved.

“We make the miracles to occur in our time, and it’s easy to ignore the systemic challenges in our society because we get distracted in life, and that’s understandable,” he said. “But this is something that we need to pay attention to because it deeply affects citizens of the city and the overall success of our city and our community, and that’s something that should concern us deeply as Jews.”

Amster said JUFJ will head to Annapolis when the legislative session begins next month to work with Delegate Sandy Rosenberg (D-District 41) on legislation they hope will include the 14-day pre-filing notice and other reforms such as annual health and safety inspections and funding of eviction prevention services. Rosenberg has worked on landlord-tenant issues throughout his career and said many other states have such protections for renters.

“Tenants, they don’t have lawyers, so to that extent there are protections in the law,” he said. “Most of them are either not aware of those protections or are not aware of what they need to do seek legal counsel.”

Rosenberg said while these reforms may make sense to most people, facing the landlord lobby may be a challenge.

“The landlords are a powerful group in Annapolis, so we will make the best case that we can,” he said.