NEW YORK, Dec 10 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Terry, a single mother, is one of thousands of people in the poverty-plagued U.S. city of Baltimore struggling to hang onto a run-down apartment that she can barely afford.
She is one of the lucky ones, however, because she received legal advice to fight eviction and discover the legal rights that could keep her and her 3-year-old daughter in their home.
Most people fighting eviction in Baltimore do not know their legal rights, particularly rights that could allow them to keep a roof over their head, according to a study released this week by the Public Justice Center (PJC), a civil legal aid group.
Some 7,000 households have been evicted each year in Baltimore since 2012, yet a majority of people facing eviction have valid reasons to fight back although most arrive in court without a lawyer, the research found.
The research illustrates the human cost of a lack of affordable housing that afflicts cities across the United States, exacerbating a cycle of poverty, said Zafar Shah, an PJC attorney recommending a raft of legal measures to help tenants.
"All over the country, cities like Baltimore are struggling," he said, adding that poor renters face stagnant or falling wages, joblessness and tenuous public assistance.
"In place of a real response to the affordability crisis here, you simply have 7,000 people being booted out of their home every year."
Baltimore, the 26th largest U.S. city with a population of 623,000, ranks second in the nation behind Detroit in the percentage of renters facing eviction, the study said.
Almost a quarter of residents live below the poverty line and about half rent homes, according to U.S. data on Baltimore which has struggled with crime, a loss of manufacturing jobs and persistent unemployment, poverty and homelessness.
The study interviewed 297 tenants served with eviction notices at the District Court of Maryland for Baltimore City, known as "Rent Court", from July 2014 to August 2015.
Most were women, nearly all of them black. Most live on $2,000 or less per month and 85 percent had no form of public housing subsidy, the study said.
DISADVANTAGE IN THE SYSTEM
Nearly four out of five lived in housing with serious health or safety problems such as infestations, peeling paint, leaks or mold, and most had complained to the landlord - both factors that could create a legal defense for not paying rent, it said.
But tenants who do not know their rights and do not have lawyers are at a distinct advantage, Shah said.
"When they get to the court, what they find is that they're not going to have their day in court," he said.
Terry - not her real name as she did not want to be identified - has so far avoided eviction, but her case is still pending in a court system that the study says skews in favor of landlords who tend to have resources and legal counsel.
The 34-year-old home health nurse received an eviction notice last month after struggling to pay rent of almost $1,700 a month for a rodent-infested apartment in downtown Baltimore.
Doors in the apartment are broken while outside, soiled hallways reek of urine and garbage is strewn around the complex, but decent, clean apartments are impossible to find, she said.
When she appeared in Rent Court, she was lucky that her case was overheard by a public interest lawyer who offered help.
"No one explains anything to you," Terry said. "I would have not known that I have the right for my rent to be reduced, and I would not have known about my right to ask for retroactive damages. It seems like a very cold process."
About half the tenants surveyed said they felt intimidated or discouraged from bringing up issues such as landlord harassment or shoddy conditions before judges in Rent Court, which is inundated by more than 600 rent complaints daily.
Judge John Morrissey, Chief Judge of the District Court of Maryland, said he welcomed the look at the system.
"It helps us sharpen our focus on the issues that people are thinking we can improve on and, to the extent that we can improve, I'm committed to improving," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a telephone interview.
He said programs and policies are in place or pending to address some issues and improve handling of the case volume.
He also said tenants get instructions in court about their legal options, are told about public attorneys on the premises and can call for free legal advice to a self-help center.
"We're trying," said the judge, adding the court system did aim for a fair balance between tenants and landlords.
About 200 miles (320 km) to the north, New York City, where almost 29,000 families were evicted in 2014, has launched a $60 million a year plan to help tenants which includes hiring more lawyers to help fight eviction and homelessness.
"The lack of legal representation for low-income tenants in Housing Court is causing a humanitarian crisis in New York, with thousands of families, many with children, falling into homelessness," said New York state Senator Adriano Espaillat when the plan was announced in September.
The Baltimore study recommended Rent Court extend the length of the legal process so renters can find help, expand availability of legal assistance, force landlords to document claims, enforce inspections and fund eviction prevention programs.
"The eviction process exacerbates the problem of urban poverty by upending all the daily routines that people have come to rely on in order to get by on their meager incomes," the Baltimore Sun newspaper wrote in an editorial this week.
"Overall it serves to deepen the cycle of poverty in which these families find themselves trapped."
(Reporting by Ellen Wulfhorst, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org).
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