On August 6th Henry and Sharon Bell walked out of court with a judgement for rent abatement and damages from their landlord, Toriano C. Martin. They have been to court five times since May, which is a long road–one that is so frustrating that most tenants just give up–to get justice. The Bells have been living in their home on West Cold Spring Lane for nine years, raising five children there. Henry Bell is a veteran and currently works in juvenile justice in Baltimore City. Sharon has worked as a phlebotomist, and is considering getting back into the field.
When Toriano C. Martin took over as property owner in September of 2012, the property fell into disrepair, often with Mr. Bell footing the bill for major repairs. While Mr. Martin refused to make repairs, he continuously harassed the Bells via text message for rent, threatening to evict them, and refusing to give an address to send rent checks, instead insisting that the Bells pay through an online service owned by Mr. Martin, and charging a $20 service charge. When the Bells stopped paying rent, waiting for a non-payment complaint to be filed so they could at least get an address for the owner, they planned to file a rent escrow case.
“Us joining together gives people the strength to go through what they need to go through with. More people need to join because otherwise you’re out here by yourself. And we need the Right to Housing Alliance out here. We really do. I have been through the experience, I have lived it. I’m living it right now.” – Sharon Bell
In District Court yesterday, the Bells finally received a judgement for damages, though a retaliation dispute relating to a notice to vacate issued by the landlord went unheard. Again, while the Bells left the courtroom with a victory it was a reluctant one by Judge Sampson. The judge for the second time (he also asked this in the Bells’ first hearing in his courtroom, AND of another young couple seeking rent escrow the same day) asked Mrs. Bell if the conditions were so bad why didn’t she just move? Mrs. Bell said that she didn’t want to move and couldn’t afford to move. He attempted to issue a ruling that included the Bells’ finding a new place to live. Zafar Shah, staff attorney for the Public Justice Center countered that finding comparable living arrangements has nothing to do with laws regarding habitability, and with Toriano Martin’s responsibility to adhere to those laws. Judge Sampson agreed, and issued a judgement. But again tried to argue the amount down, and did not agree with the amount the Bells think they should be paying for rent.
The Bells were originally taken to rent court for non-payment of rent in May. They had not paid rent in several months in protest of conditions issues in their four bedroom house. At that hearing they requested that the non-payment complaint be combined with an escrow –a special account set up by the court into which a tenant can pay rent until such time as a landlord makes necessary repairs–hearing, and one was scheduled for May 24th.
“It’s inspiring. the people are very supportive, they showed up when we needed the support. At one point we were just through. You have to explain all this this stuff to the judge, but if he hasn’t ever lived it how can you expect him to understand it? And so many people are in the same situation. It’s a great impact on our lives. To come to the Alliance meetings and hear other people express what their personal situations are so we can build a greater force to fight. I’m overwhelmed by it.” – Henry Bell
On May 24th, they appeared in court. Despite having over 30 violations listed by the inspector, and adequate notice by the Bells to alert the landlord to the problems, Judge Cogen initially ruled to extend the landlord 30 days to make necessary repairs before granting escrow. Rarely do judges show such leniency to tenants. Tenants are never granted additional time to pay rent, but landlords are routinely granted additional time to make repairs and do maintenance that should be done in a timely fashion at the request of their tenants. With representation from Public Justice Center staff attorney, Zafar Shah, the Bells were ultimately able to get an escrow account granted that day, but the judge refused to hear testimony from the Bells regarding the notice they had given the landlord, and on damages relating to the conditions issues of the house since September of 2012, stating that it was unfair given that the landlord had sent an agent and was not present at the hearing. Mr. Shah countered that the Bells should not be punished because of the landlord’s decision to not appear. Again, the same courtesy is not extended to tenants in District Court; when tenants do not appear for hearings the standard practice is to issue default judgements in favor of the landlord. The combination of the group of RTHA members in the courtroom to support them, and the representation provided by the Public Justice Center led to the judge ultimately ruling to grant escrow for one of the months in question, though she would not rule on damages or rent abatement despite having authority to do so. Another hearing was scheduled for June 25th to rule on damages and abatement.
On June 25th, the Bells appeared in court again, only again to have the hearing postponed to give the landlord more time to make necessary repairs. Again the Bells had to reschedule the hearing, taking further time out of their schedules and further inconveniencing them. They were back in court on July 5th, at which time Judge Sampson insisted that he could not make a judgement on damages, despite having broad judicial discretion to do so, and that it would have to be done at another court. The Public Justice Center filed a motion to revisit the situation and finally they were scheduled a new hearing for August 6th, at which point the Bells finally saw victory.
This is typical of what a tenant has to go through to convince a judge at District Court that a landlord should hold up their end of the bargain and provide safe, adequate housing. It needs to change, and people like the Bells who are willing to go through this lengthy and frustrating process–not just for themselves, but to pave the way for others–are the ones who are going to change it.