Maryland’s attorney general urged state legislators Wednesday to raise the landlords’ filing fee in evictions from a near national low of $15 to $120, about $8 above the U.S. average, saying the eightfold increase might discourage landlords from initiating eviction proceedings that have become too readily used against tenants in a time of financial hardship.
Brian E. Frosh spoke in favor of legislation that would give the money raised by the increased fee to the financially strapped Maryland Legal Services Corp., which funds groups that provide free legal services to low-income Marylanders. The measure, House Bill 729, would also prohibit landlords from passing the additional filing costs to their tenants as provisions of their leases.
Frosh, who called for the measure to be introduced, said the landlords’ currently low filing fee serves as an incentive for them to initiate eviction proceedings rather than simply ask their tenants for the overdue rent. That fee is $15 statewide except for Baltimore, where the cost is $25.
“It is so cheap” to file, Frosh told the House Judiciary Committee. “It allows the landlords to use our courts as a collection agency.”
Frosh cited statistics showing that eviction proceedings were brought against 83.65% of Maryland rental units in 2016, compared to 6.12% nationally. In 2019, the Maryland figure reached 92.54%, Frosh said.
But Del. Mike Griffith, R-Cecil and Harford, voiced concern that the increased fee would be unfairly burdensome on landlords that oversee just a few units and do not abuse the eviction filing process.
Frosh responded that small landlords should not be concerned with the fee increase because their business model is not to evict but to resolve payment disputes with a phone call rather than a filing.
The proposed increase is intended to discourage landlords who “have a big operation and can crank out eviction after eviction,” Frosh said.
“We have a serious problem in our state,” he added. “The purpose is to deter these serial eviction filings.”
But Katherine Kelly Howard, general counsel for Regional Management Inc., assailed Frosh’s accusation of serial eviction filings by landlords as she voiced opposition to the proposed fee increase.
“This legislature for over 40 years … has put together a landlord-tenant statute that does fairly balance the interests of landlords and tenants with regard to the need to be paid but also the need to be protected from what used to be known as self-help eviction,” Howard told the House committee.
“This bill with all of its terms, particularly the incomprehensible filing fee and the fact it is unrecoverable (from the tenant), absolutely destroys that balance,” added Howard, whose Baltimore employer manages rental properties. “It is going to eventually result in all rents going up for all tenants, poor paying tenants and good paying tenants, and that is something that is absolutely incomprehensible to me why this legislature would want to upset that balance.”
Susan M. Erlichman, executive director of Maryland Legal Services Corp., said the additional funds provided by the proposed filing fee increase would help MLSC meet the “unmet needs” of low income Marylanders for free civil legal representation amid the economic downturn caused by the pandemic.
MLSC’s leading funding sources – interest on attorney trust accounts and court filing fees – have dried up as interest rates have been at nearly zero percent and filings have decreased with the slowdown in court operations to stanch the spread of COVID-19, Erlichman told the House committee.
HB 729 has been cross-filed in the Senate. The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee is scheduled to hold a Feb. 26 hearing on Senate Bill 530.