Curtis Jones’s eviction hearing lasted less than two minutes. Like most “rocket docket” hearings, where judges process hundreds of filed evictions in an hour and a half or less, Jones didn’t even get a chance to speak. When his case was called, the judge asked if he owed the rent, and he barely managed to nod affirmatively before his landlord’s hired agent took over. The agent explained that Jones agreed he owed the money alleged due by the landlord, and he was willing to waive his appeal rights. In return, Jones’ landlord would wait two weeks before moving forward with the eviction. The judge entered judgment for the landlord, barely acknowledging Jones, before marking down that he would be evicted from his home no sooner than two weeks from that day.
To the uninitiated, this could seem like a normal court proceeding that helped a tenant bargain for a few more weeks in his home. The reality, however, is that this was a “deal” that only helped the landlord, brokered by an agent whose job it was to get Jones out as fast as possible.
In actuality, Jones said he had a defense. Earlier that year, his roof collapsed on him after his landlord had allegedly not kept up with repairs, injuring him. Threats to life, health, or safety being present on a property are strong defenses to eviction filings. When the threat is severe, a tenant can use that as a defense against eviction filings and even file their own complaint for damages against the landlord. Jones had no idea he could raise this as a defense. He also had made this agreement without knowing who he made it with.
Maryland law allows landlords to hire non-attorneys — called agents — to represent them in court without the landlord being present. These agents have commodified the eviction process and specialize in filing, representing, and executing eviction cases without the landlord ever having to actually communicate with their tenant or be present in court. Agents aren’t required to have any certification or license to represent a landlord in Maryland’s Rent Courts. They aren’t required to have any formal education in tenant law either. Agents are open about their lethal efficiency at eviction in their advertising and are known to offer “deals” like the one in Jones’ case to tenants in the courthouse hallway just minutes before eviction hearings. Agent services can cost less than $100 per filing, making them an extremely affordable option for landlords. Of the dockets that Baltimore Renters United organizers sat in, actual landlords were only personally present 28% of the time.
When we talked to Jones about his experience with his landlord’s agent, he told us the same story we hear from many tenants: He had no idea what a landlord agent was. Like many tenants, he said the lack of clarity about the agent’s relationship to his case had been confusing, leading him to believe the agent was a court employee charged with helping tenants negotiate with landlords. The agent had not said anything about who he was and who he represented. And since Jones didn’t know there were free legal teams that could help tenants facing eviction, he had walked into the situation blind.
Jones said that when he got to the courthouse earlier that day, he saw lots of people grouped around the agent and asked the agent, “Do we have to report to you?”
Jones says the agent answered that they did, without explaining who he was or that he was a paid representative for the landlord. He didn’t even give his name. According to Jones, he said the judge only wanted to know if the money was technically owed, and the best he could do for Jones was to hold off the eviction by two weeks. He didn’t tell Jones the eviction process usually takes at least two weeks anyway, so a 14-day pause was immaterial. He also didn’t mention that Jones’ roof collapsing could be a defense or that consent judgments like the one he was offering were unappealable — meaning that if Jones were to realize he’d made a bad deal later, the eviction would still go forward no matter what.
According to data collected by Baltimore Renters United, tenants go to rent court without legal representation at least 75% of the time, even though Baltimore City passed its Right To Counsel legislation guaranteeing a right to free legal counsel to all tenants facing eviction starting in 2020. Black men like Jones are still usually only represented 21% of the time. Although this is a vast improvement since 2020 – when tenant representation was around 1% — tenants are still abysmally underrepresented, and judges only mentioned the tenant’s right to counsel in 4% of the dockets we sat in on.
Landlords, on the other hand, are usually represented by an attorney, an agent, or both and seldom even come to court. Landlords rely on agents in 54% of hearings and attorneys in at least 20% of cases. Agents are cheap and allow the landlord to maintain anonymity and a degree of separation from the dirty work of evictions. Agents are also experienced in how to talk to tenants and navigate the courts to get the best deal possible for the landlord, leading to quick evictions heavily swayed in the landlord’s favor. Even more dismal are times when tenants come to court wanting to speak with their landlord to discuss safety conditions on the property, get receipts for their payments, or get ledgers, but instead, they encounter a person who is only present to go forward on an eviction.
Tenants can access better outcomes when they arm themselves with knowledge through Right to Counsel, but the real change has to come from the courts. Agents should not be allowed in rent court. Not only do they literally make a living by putting families on the street, they protect and enable absentee landlords and profiteering real estate corporations. Judges also have to start prioritizing tenants’ rights and justice over speed. Some processes — like making people homeless — should not be executed with mechanical efficiency.
Baltimore Renters United’s Rent Court Watch program sends tenant advocates to observe failure-to-pay-rent proceedings, aka eviction court, in Baltimore City. We hope to use our coverage to shine a light on what happens in rent court, educate tenants about their rights, and hold landlords, agents, and other bad actors accountable.
If you’ve received notice of an eviction hearing, you have the right to counsel. There is a call center available to tenants seeking legal help. Call 1-800-492-0618 and follow the prompts for access to counsel. You can learn more about Right to Counsel on BRU’s Website, where you can also view our Data Dashboard. Always seek legal advice before committing to deals with your landlord, and always ask who the person you’re speaking to is and who they work for when you’re in the courthouse.