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Frosh renews call for increase to eviction filing fee

“We have landlords that are using the district court as a collection agency,” Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh says. “There is something seriously out of whack.” (The Daily Record/File Photo)

Maryland’s attorney general urged state legislators Thursday to raise the landlords’ filing fee in evictions from a near national low of $15 to $80, saying the 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’s request is one-third lower than the $120 fee he sought last year, a proposal that died in the General Assembly amid opposition from landlords. Nationally, the average filing fee in evictions is about $112, the attorney general has said.

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 providing free legal services to low-income Marylanders. The measure, Senate Bill 223, would go into effect June 1 and also prohibit landlords from passing the additional filing costs to their tenants as provisions of their leases.

Frosh, who called for the measure’s introduction, 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.

“We have landlords that are using the district court as a collection agency,” Frosh told the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. “There is something seriously out of whack.”

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 Sen. Ron Watson, D-Prince George’s and a committee member, voiced concern that the $65 filing fee increase would “penalize the other landlords” who oversee just a few rental units and do not abuse the eviction filing process.

Frosh responded that the proposed filing fee increase is “not penalty per se” on landlords.

“It’s just a deterrent,” the attorney general said.

But Sen. Chris West said such deterrence could well result in landlords needlessly waiting months before filing an eviction notice by which time the delinquent tenant would be deeper in debt and by then certainly unable to pay the overdue rent. Thus, while the higher fee might lead to fewer eviction filings, it might also result in more actual evictions, said West, R-Baltimore County and a committee member.

Landlord representatives disputed Frosh’s characterization of “serial eviction filings,” telling the committee that evicting tenants is generally a last resort due to the time and expense of the process and finding and preparing the units for new renters.

Erin Bradley, of the Apartment and Office Building Association of Metropolitan Washington, called the proposed filing fee increase “a punitive tax on housing providers (that) merely punishes a provider for exercising their rights.”

The exposure of landlords to higher fees would also be passed on to the tenants, she said.

“This would challenge housing affordability,” Bradley added.

Grason Wiggins, of the Maryland Multi-Housing Association, said a four-month-old Maryland law requiring landlords to provide 10 days’ notice before filing for eviction should give tenants an opportunity to resolve their debt and address any concerns about them being blindsided by a court filing.

The Department of Legislative Services, an arm of the General Assembly that analyzes proposed legislation, said the proposed fee increase would raise $16.9 million for Maryland Legal Services Corp. in fiscal year 2023, which begins July 1. DLS based its estimate on a 50% reduction in eviction filings under the increased charge.

Deb Seltzer, executive director of MLSC, said the additional funds provided by the proposed filing fee increase would help the corporation meet the needs of low-income Marylanders for free civil legal representation amid the economic downturn caused by COVID-19.

“Even before the pandemic, the demand for civil legal services outstripped the supply,” Seltzer told the Senate committee. “Additional resources from the filing fee surcharge would allow more of our neighbors to receive help addressing their basic human needs like safety, shelter and economic stability.”

SB 223 has been cross-filed in the Senate. The House Judiciary Committee is scheduled to hold a Feb. 16 hearing on House Bill 298.