Baltimore City Council Passes Right to Counsel Legislation Providing Protection for Tenants during COVID-19 Pandemic

Baltimore Renters United (BRU), a coalition of community advocates, campaigned successfully for the passage of Council Bill 20-065, “Right to Counsel in Eviction Cases.” The legislation gives tenants in Baltimore City the legal right to a lawyer in cases that may result in an eviction. Baltimore is now the seventh jurisdiction in the country to enact this progressive tool to prevent homelessness and high rates of disruptive displacement, particularly among Black and Brown communities.

In Baltimore, 140,000 eviction cases are filed each year, and nearly 70,000 evictions are executed. Landlords and the Court evicted more than 537 families from August to November 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic. In these cases, only 1% of tenants had a lawyer, compared to 96% of landlords. A 2016 survey reported that 80% of tenants had a legal defense to the eviction complaint, but only 8% were afforded the chance to assert those defenses.

The eviction crisis in Baltimore, as in many jurisdictions, is closely tied to race and gender inequities. Black households are evicted at a 13% higher rate than white households within the same economic status. Black women are evicted at a rate 296% higher than white males.

In New York City, which has right to counsel, 84% of represented tenants remain in their homes. According to a Stout report, an annual investment of $5.7 million for right to counsel in Baltimore will result in 92% of tenants avoiding disruptive displacement. The City and State will also save an estimated $35.6 million on homeless shelters, hospital care, transportation, and foster care. “Right to counsel is a proven method of dramatically decreasing the disruptive displacement on families and it is a cost-effective investment towards the overall health of municipalities, especially in the aftermath of this pandemic,” says Charisse Lue, attorney with the Public Justice Center.

BRU, a coalition of housing advocates, organizers, and community organizations, pushed for Baltimore’s right to counsel legislation as a key component of its “Human Right to Housing” campaign. The coalition was formed in 2017 around an effort to require rental inspections in one- and two-bedroom apartments, as many landlords in Baltimore had failed to maintain their rental properties in habitable condition and the City had failed to hold landlords accountable. After the rental license legislation passed in 2018, BRU forged ahead with the right to counsel campaign as a tool to combat Baltimore’s high rate of evictions, disproportionately impacting female head of households and Black households.

The coalition worked with city council members to move Council Bill 20-065 forward. Former Council President (now Baltimore Mayor) Brandon Scott was the bill’s sponsor. BRU garnered press attention for the eviction crisis, collected stories from tenants that had been evicted, and shared reports on the benefits of right to counsel laws. The strategies deployed throughout the campaign proved successful, with city council’s unanimous passage of the bill in November and former Mayor Young’s signing the bill into law in December 2020.

The Baltimore Right to Counsel law requires that the Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) contract with nonprofit legal services to provide tenants access to an attorney with cases that may result in eviction. To ensure tenants know their rights, the legislation includes funding for community-based organizations to conduct outreach and education. The legislation also has an evaluation mechanism and requires an annual report detailing the number of individuals served, the extent of legal representation performed, engagement and education of tenants, and other outcomes. Finally, the legislation requires additional low-income tenant representation on the city’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund Commission. 

Right to counsel is a monumental step in recognizing that housing is a human right, not a commodity. “It is time Baltimore recognizes that housing is a human right and that individuals, families, and this City thrive when there is safe, affordable and stable housing for its residents,” says Tisha Guthrie, a member of the Affordable Housing Trust Fund Commission. 

To learn Baltimore’s right to counsel law, contact Charisse Lue, attorney at the Public Justice Center, at: [email protected]