The case of Freddie Gray has provided a long-awaited opportunity to put Baltimore’s legacy of police brutality on trial. But as the public weighs the facts surrounding the young man’s brutal death at the hands of police, the tragic backdrop to his short life plays out in a different courtroom: Baltimore’s “rent court,” where thousands of families like Freddie Gray’s are summoned every year to give up their homes.
The city’s massive judicial eviction rate of roughly 6,000 to 7,000 rental households annually is among the nation’s highest, a product of the recession, along with decades of eroding housing stock and roiling social distress. According to a new study by the civil legal aid group Public Justice Center (PJC), in collaboration with the Right to Housing Alliance and researchers at Johns Hopkins and the University of Baltimore, those who face eviction proceedings are casualties of an economic crisis that has metastasized into a constitutional crisis.
A survey of about 300 cases processed through the rent court docket of Baltimore District Court shows that the structure of court proceedings leads many renters, who rarely have lawyers, to never even plead their case before a judge, and instead forgo their homes to avoid further legal trouble. About 94 percent of defendants are black, the vast majority women, and the targets of eviction were typically impoverished families with children, about half of them receiving public benefits for living expenses other than housing.
The analysis shows the pool of about 300 defendants—sampled from some 150,000 cases processed annually—was steadily “whittled down” through “pre-trial hallway resolutions,” in which landlords’ agents or court personnel steer people toward hallway meetings to “settle.” These informal negotiations keep about a third of renters out of court and ultimately accelerate evictions.
Out of 165 cases that went before a judge, “only 62 disputed the landlord’s claim.” In about half of those disputed claims, the judge tried to reroute them out of court by telling them to ‘“step out into the hallway” for more negotiations with landlords. Of 23 cases in which the tenant had a chance to complain about housing conditions, about two-thirds reported that “the judge disallowed explanation or a showing of evidence about the poor conditions.”