Maryland Bar Bulletin
Publications : Bar Bulletin : August 2005

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Pro Bono Profile:
Fair Housing for All of Maryland's Neighbors
By Lisa Muscara

Food, clothing, shelter: the most basic of human needs. In our daily lives, most of us assume that these elementary needs will be met. For so many of our neighbors, however, each day is a struggle to secure these basics, and one simple event can destroy the equation, leaving them without the fundamentals to maintain a comfortable quality of life.

Maria’s situation exemplifies this struggle. She is a single mother who was forced to take her children and leave their home when the apartment they were living in became condemned. Maria scraped together all of her savings, which she used to pay a deposit and rent for another apartment. In just two months, she received notice that the home where she and her children were now living was in foreclosure. For Maria, the balance was tipping. She called Baltimore Neighborhoods, Inc.’s (BNI) Tenant/Landlord Hotline, where she learned information about her legal options and counseling on obtaining shelter. With the information, support and advocacy provided by BNI, Maria found new housing for her family and was able to maintain the delicate balance of her life.

Established in 1959, BNI is a non-profit fair housing organization serving the citizens of the state of Maryland, working to ensure equal access to housing opportunities and to promote stable, integrated neighborhoods. More than 45 years later, BNI continues to champion the cause of fair housing by educating and counseling the community on tenant/landlord matters such as evictions, maintenance issues, security deposits and proper notice to vacate. BNI Executive Director Joseph Coffey explains that the organization maintains two distinct programs – the Fair Housing Program and the Tenant/Landlord Program – both of which contribute to BNI’s mission.

Under their Fair Housing Program, BNI fights housing discrimination by monitoring federal, state and local enforcement of anti-discrimination laws pertaining to the sale or rental of housing on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, disability, family status, gender and sexual orientation. BNI staff accepts complaints on discrimination in housing, investigates them and recommends administrative or legal intervention. They also encourage fair marketing and sale of housing.

BNI’s Tenant/Landlord Program works to improve tenant/landlord relations by responding to requests for assistance from tenants and landlords, resolving disputes with information, mediation and, when required, legal assistance. Much of this activity is initiated through BNI’s Tenant/Landlord Hotline. The Hotline, which accepted 22,765 calls last year, operates from 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. and from 2:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m., Monday through Friday. It is an information and referral Hotline only. When situations requiring legal advice present themselves through the Hotline, callers are referred to the Legal Aid Bureau, Inc., or BNI’s pro bono attorneys. Calls are received from landlords and tenants alike, posing questions about matters including security deposits, maintenance issues, eviction notices and more.

In addition to maintaining this very active hotline, BNI’s Tenant/Landlord Program also publishes Guides to Local, State, and Federal Laws Governing Tenant-Landlord Relations for the state of Maryland, with additional guides available covering Baltimore City, Baltimore County, Anne Arundel County or Prince George’s County. Coffey explains that these comprehensive manuals, which BNI provides gratis to every District Court Judge in Maryland, are considered the definitive piece of tenant/landlord law used by Maryland’s judges and lawyers. BNI staff follows the activity in the General Assembly each year and compiles any changes in the law that might relate to tenant landlord matters. These updates are incorporated into the manuals to keep them up to date. Since 1997, the significant annual task of editing these manuals has been enthusiastically adopted by volunteer attorney Diana Mark.

Mark is an attorney for the Department of Health and Human Services, in the office of the General Counsel, particularly their Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Division. In addition to serving as editor for BNI’s manuals, she has also participated as a member of their Board of Directors for the past two years. Mark recalls how her pro bono service with BNI began eight years ago.

“I wanted to do some kind of volunteer work,” she explains. “I wanted to be able to use my legal skills to do that, but I was kind of intimidated by doing pro bono work because the area I practice in is so specialized. I was looking for an opportunity that would not take me into the courtroom because I’m not comfortable with that at all, and I didn’t want to take on cases because I didn’t have experience with that and I just didn’t feel qualified to do that. [But] one thing I really like to do is edit, and a big part of reviewing these manuals is editing.”

From this insight, a dynamic partnership was created. For eight years now, Mark, who still does not think of herself as a tenant landlord expert, has contributed her professional skill and expertise to help create what is considered Maryland’s “definitive piece of tenant landlord law”.

Through its two major programs, BNI fights housing discrimination, supports integrated communities, works to improve tenant-landlord relations, provides community education and outreach and advocates for persons with disabilities on accessible housing issues. It is one of the oldest and largest fair housing organizations in the nation and has had a significant impact in creating justice in housing for all the neighbors in Maryland, including Maria and her children.

For information on a residential tenant/landlord problem in the state of Maryland, call BNI’s Hotline at (410) 243-6007 or (800) 487-6007. To contact BNI’s fair housing program regarding potential discriminatory practices or to volunteer for this program, call (410) 243-4400. For more information about how to become involved with BNI, call (410) 243-4468.

Lisa Muscara is Director of Volunteer Services for the Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland.

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Publications : Bar Bulletin: August, 2005

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