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Campaign advertises renters’ rights

Terence Pleasant had been renting a Washington Village rowhouse with a friend for six months when he received a letter from a bank’s lawyer in December 2009. The house he lived in was being foreclosed, and Pleasant was told he had to pay his rent to the bank or vacate the premises.

“We had no idea what was going on,” Pleasant said. “I was nervous at first. I wasn’t planning on leaving.”

Luckily for Pleasant, his housemate suggested they contact the Public Justice Center Inc., which in the last 18 months has helped 400 renters, mostly in Baltimore, whose landlords are facing foreclosure. As the foreclosure crisis continues, the agency and the Baltimore Homeownership Preservation Coalition want to reach out to more tenants who might be in Pleasant’s situation.

The groups formally launched a new public awareness campaign promoting renters’ rights Monday with the backing of federal, state and local officials. The campaign — “Landlord Foreclosed? Renters Have Rights!” — stars Baltimore City Council President Jack Young in radio, television and online advertisements and includes billboards on city buses. The media blitz is funded by a $30,000 grant from the Open Society Institute’s Neighborhood Stabilization Plan.

In the event of a foreclosure, a renter is permitted under state and federal law to remain in the property for the remainder of the lease or, in the case of a month-to-month lease, to take at least 90 days to vacate.

“They do have rights,” said Beth Harber, chairwoman of BHPC’s Renters and Foreclosure Committee. “There are places they can go for legal assistance.”

The problem is acute in the city, where it’s estimated that 40 percent of foreclosure filings are for investor-owned residential properties.

“If you are facing foreclosure, don’t hide, get help,” Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said. “We have to make sure people know there is nothing to be afraid of.”

Rawlings-Blake was joined at the campaign’s unveiling by Young, Maryland Democratic congressmen Elijah E. Cummings and John Sarbanes and Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler. All five discussed the importance of renters educating themselves in the event of a foreclosure.

“If a tenant doesn’t understand their rights, a lot of times their landlord won’t volunteer that information,” said Sarbanes, a former president of the Public Justice Center.

The campaign advises renters to contact the Public Justice Center, which offers free assistance to a renter who is a bona fide tenant paying market-value rent on an arms-length lease, according to staff attorney Matt Hill. That qualifies 95 percent of the renters who seek assistance, he added.

“As long as the person calls before eviction, we can help them,” Hill said.

It was Hill who helped Pleasant after Pleasant received that letter from the bank’s lawyer. Hill filed a motion in the foreclosure proceedings, arguing the bank could not give Pleasant notice until the foreclosure was completed. Hill also represented Pleasant in renters’ court after his original landlord was also demanding rent at the same time as the bank.

Pleasant ultimately remained in the home due to Hill’s efforts until he decided to move out last July. He was glad to hear the help he received was being widely promoted.

“I think a lot of people are in my same situation,” Pleasant said. “They don’t know who to turn to or where to turn to.”