Outside Courtroom 2 in Baltimore City District Court at 501 East Fayette Street, dozens of people—some holding clipboards and chatting with those nearby, others frozen with looks of confusion and exhaustion—waited for the doors to open and the 11:00 a.m. docket to begin. They were in court accused of failure to pay rent. This day in September 2022 was Baltimore Courtwatch’s first look at rent court.

This story also appeared in Baltimore Courtwatch

Having observed over 5,500 bail review hearings and attended numerous criminal trials, Courtwatch understands that police, prosecutors, and judges have free rein to exercise their power over anyone they choose. 

In criminal court, the injustices can be relatively plain to see. Thanks to popular media and direct experience, we have an idea of what these courtrooms look like: that there is a defense attorney and a prosecutor, that there is a judge, that defendants have a right to an attorney. In failure to pay rent cases, though, the relative obscurity of the process allows for similar grotesque evasions of justice to go unchallenged or even unnoticed.

Unlike criminal cases, the failure to pay docket is not posted on any television screen in the lobby. In fact, there is no digital record of such cases. In 2022, Baltimore City’s failure to pay rent cases are still tracked on paper.

Once the courtroom doors are opened, the crowd from the hallway piles in and everyone involved in a case stands up for a group swear-in. The judge gives instructions, regurgitating the script they are legally obligated to read. 

In failure to pay rent cases, the landlord, who is the plaintiff, is suing the tenant, the defendant, because the landlord says the tenant has not paid rent. In these proceedings, the tenant will automatically lose their case in a “default judgment” if they don’t attend. But the landlord is not required to show up. Instead, they can hire people—formally known as “agents”—from a for-profit company to complete the legal paperwork, file the court documents, and stand in for them in court. Agents do not have to be attorneys. They also do not need to introduce themselves as agents to the tenants. They will often stand in the hallway with a clipboard, trying to settle the case with tenants who have no legal representation. 

The landlord can also hire a licensed attorney to assist with these cases and stand in court for them. Maryland provides legal assistance to renters of limited means, but often the defendants in rent court have no legal representation. 

Rent court proceedings can happen in what seems like a blink of an eye. A person unfamiliar with legal terms and proceedings and living in unstable housing is expected to go toe-to-toe with either a seasoned attorney, a professional landlord representative, or sometimes both. Time after time, cases are called by the court only for the agent to say that the case was settled in the hallway, and the judge closes the case.

The victims of this system are often Black women, who are three times more likely to be evicted than white men. 

This could be different if tenants had more access to a lawyer. Housing attorneys know that the landlord must prove the tenant has not paid their rent, and that they must show the court the sum of the outstanding balance and that the property was properly licensed for the duration of the months they allege are owed.

Rental property licenses are publicly accessible through the Baltimore Housing website

What is also brushed over by the courts is that a case can be postponed if the tenant wants to get an attorney. Tenants seldom know this.

Housing is a fundamental right and a necessary component of literal survival. Rent court operates in direct opposition to this truth.  

Baltimore Courtwatch will continue to partner with grassroots, tenant-focused housing organizations to better assist in shining a light into this dark corner of Baltimore City’s courts. For more resources on housing rights, please follow Baltimore Renters United and the Human Right to Housing initiative from the Public Justice Center.