Del. Bilal Ali (D-District 41) submitted a bill in late January entitled the Jared Kushner Act that would stop courts from authorizing the arrest of tenants who are in debt for rent less than $5,000 in landlord-tenant disputes. The bill comes after revelations that Kushner, President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, owns a real estate firm that has more than a dozen apartment complexes in the Baltimore area from which some tenants have been arrested for being behind on their rent.
The legal term is a “body attachment,” which authorizes the arrest of the tenant in arrears to compel the tenant to come to court. Late last year, Maryland’s attorney general began an investigation of Kushner Companies’ Westminster Management for its aggressive tactics against tenants following a report published jointly by ProPublica and The New York Times Magazine.
The report detailed “highly litigious dealings with the people who rent apartments in the 15 complexes [the Kushner Companies] owns in the Baltimore area. The company, which shares ownership in some of the complexes with other partners, but runs them all through its Westminster Management subsidiary, has brought hundreds of cases against current and former tenants in local courts,” ProPublica said in an Oct. 2017 article.
Westminster Management complexes are mostly in Baltimore County, including in Middle River, Essex, Rosedale, Halethorpe and Lansdowne. Ali said he didn’t know of any Kushner Companies/Westminster Management apartment complexes in District 41.
However, Ali said concerns about tenants’ rights came to light for him following the attorney general’s investigation of the Kushner Companies, as well as hearing from some Baltimore tenants, although he hadn’t spoken to any tenants who had been arrested under the current “body attachment” law. Ali is hoping to cross-file the bill in the Senate with Sen. William C. Smith Jr., a Montgomery County Democrat.
“He has another bill that deals with body attachment now, and I asked him if he wanted to cross-file the bill in the Senate, so I’m waiting to hear from him,” Ali said.
Smith’s SB 1050, entitled “Civil Actions — Body Attachment — Procedures,” is cross-filed in the house as HB 1081 and sponsored there by Del. Erek L. Barron of Prince George’s County. Ali is a co-sponsor of that bill along with Baltimore-area Dels. Shelley Hettleman (D-District 11) and Charles E. Sydnor III (D-District 44B), as well as Del. Carolyn J.B. Howard of Prince George’s County.
SB1050 requires the court to give a tenant taken into custody on a body attachment a form that allows the person to declare their assets and show what ability they have to pay the debt, after which they will be released. A copy of the assets will then be given to the creditors.
“I’ve been working on this issue for little over a year, and it was before the Jared Kushner story broke,” Smith said. “My bill provides an opportunity, if you are arrested, that you will be given a form designed to give a broad assessment of your ability to pay your debt, which is why they wanted you to be in court. So you sign it under the penalty of perjury and they let you go. No matter what.”
Smith said he hopes his legislation strikes a balance between the interests of people trying to make good on their debt and the rights of their creditors to get the information they need.
“But the bottom line is this bill will ensure that no one sits in jail for being poor,” he said. “And it will keep people out of the vicious cycle of being entangled in the criminal justice system because they’re poor.”
The Baltimore Jewish Council and Jews United for Justice do not have positions on the bills.
At Baltimore Neighborhoods, Inc., a nonprofit that counsels and educates tenants and landlords about fair housing practices, executive director Robert Strupp said the organization supports bills in general that protect the rights of tenants.
“We support the initiative to protect tenants’ rights coming from the legislation proposed,” he said.
On the subject of body attachments, Strupp said that he doesn’t think there has been a flurry of, or rise in, the arrest of tenants for being behind in rent, but the organization does not look kindly on the practice of body attachments.
“Putting people in jail because they owe their landlord rent dollars is an unacceptable collection method,” he said. “I don’t know that there’s more bad actors, I just think that the laws are changing, and people’s tolerance for the bad acts that have been going on for so long is becoming less accepted. So, there’s perhaps fewer ways for the bad landlords to conduct themselves in a bad way, but when they do, it’s still very significant and harmful.”
To address these kinds of issues, BNI offers a tenant/landlord hotline to provide counseling, information and resources.
“We receive over 10,000 [statewide] inquiries annually, electronically and by telephone.Many times we’re able to resolve the issue in such a way that it would prevent an eviction from happening,” Strupp said. “We are sort of a first line, and we get these referrals from local government agencies, from local elected officials and from other resources that are out there. About 4,000 of those are Baltimore City inquiries, and Baltimore County is a significant number.”
BNI is planning an event for April 28 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Federal Fair Housing Act, which was designed to address unlawful housing discrimination based on race, color, sex, national origin, or religion.