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Nate Kitch, special to ProPublica

She Was Sued Over Rent She Didn’t Owe. It Took Seven Court Dates to Prove She Was Right.

In one of the country’s richest cities, the public housing authority aggressively sued its residents, filing complaints for amounts as little as $5. Some residents were sued over the authority’s own mistakes.

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This story was co-published with the Capital Gazette, a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network. You can sign up for The Capital here.

ANNAPOLIS, Md. — In August 2018, Chermire Gladden sat on the dark wooden benches in Maryland District Court, waiting her turn as a judge churned through more than 90 cases filed against public housing residents.

Gladden had informed the Housing Authority of the City of Annapolis two months earlier that she wouldn’t be able to afford the $604 monthly payment for her two-bedroom apartment at Harbour House, a sprawling collection of three-story buildings where she lives with her 10-year-old daughter, Jazzlyn, just blocks from $1 million waterfront homes.

A school bus driver, Gladden was out of work for the summer. She asked to have her rent reduced under a federal law that prevents housing authorities from charging amounts exceeding 30% of a resident’s income.

But weeks after Gladden gave the housing authority proof that she was temporarily unemployed, she found a court notice taped to her mailbox.

On a thin yellow sheet, the housing authority accused Gladden of skipping out on her rent. She had six days to pay before her court date.

A single mother who has lived in Annapolis public housing for four years, Gladden is among hundreds of residents sued by the financially troubled housing authority in an effort to bolster rent collection.

The housing authority has aggressively pursued some of the poorest residents in Annapolis, one of the country’s oldest and richest cities. In 2018, the agency filed more than 1,200 court cases against residents, suing for amounts as little as $5, according to an analysis of court records by The Capital and ProPublica that is part of a yearlong investigation. The number more than doubled the 500 cases filed in 2017 and eclipsed court actions against residents for each of the previous three years. A full year’s data was unavailable for 2019 and 2020.

Court records show that in 2018, HACA sued about 320 residents, or more than one-third of those who live in its units. Of those residents, nearly 200 had three or more cases filed against them that year, and a dozen received notices 10 or more times.

“When I say everybody and their mama got court notices, the entire neighborhood of Harbour House had yellow court notices on every single mailbox.” Gladden said. “And so, the whole entire courtroom was filled with people from HACA.”

Baltimore and two of the state’s largest counties — Prince George’s and Montgomery — do not digitize court cases alleging unpaid rent, making it difficult to fully compare the Annapolis housing authority’s actions across Maryland. But among the 11 housing authorities that The Capital and ProPublica analyzed, Annapolis was the most aggressive.

In 2019, HACA was on pace to sue a similar number of residents as the previous year but was forced to temporarily stop after a judge ruled that the agency was not a licensed landlord because none of its buildings had been inspected by the city.

When the city completed the inspection of several rental units three months later, the housing authority sued 27 residents, or about a fifth of the roughly 126 tenants at the property. Officials attempted to evict 13 of those residents in February, but were delayed by weather conditions and then halted by the coronavirus pandemic.

As the federal government and local housing authorities loosen moratoriums on evictions, concerns are growing that the Annapolis agency’s ramped up court actions will resume.

Maryland is among 11 states that do not require notice before a landlord files a court case to collect unpaid rent. The system can play out within days of residents missing payments because the state requires only five days between when a landlord files a rent case and a court appearance.

Landlords can choose to work with residents outside of court or use mediation services, such as the Anne Arundel Conflict Resolution Center, according to local tenant advocate attorneys, but state law does not require them to do so.

If residents miss their court date because they can’t take time off from work or find child care, a judge typically rules against them, requiring payment of the alleged debt and allowing the landlord to begin the eviction process.

While only about 1% of court cases filed by the Annapolis housing authority in 2018 resulted in evictions, the cases appear on residents’ credit reports and on Maryland’s public court record system. Both are used by many of the state’s landlords when determining the qualifications of a prospective renter.

Win or lose, each case “is on your rental history, and the rental history companies report the filings, which is a problem,” said Matt Vocci, a tenant advocacy attorney in Baltimore. “Then, you go to get another apartment and they say you don’t fit our criteria or you have to pay more.”

Documents and interviews with about 80 current and former Annapolis public housing residents show that, in the past two years, the housing authority sued some families despite its own mistakes, which stemmed from delayed rent adjustments and the inconsistent implementation of its own policies.

Even residents who did not end up in court said that they felt targeted as the housing authority increased pressure on rent collection. In some cases, residents tried to catch up only to have their payments rejected because they did not cover the total debt owed.

Melissa Maddox-Evans, who in October became the executive director for the housing authority, declined to comment specifically on issues before her tenure, but she said the court cases are a necessary step. She said HACA previously had not done enough to collect unpaid rent, drawing scrutiny from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

“HACA was under direct threat from HUD because HACA was not administering the program with the same vigor and strictness that HUD required,” Maddox-Evans wrote in an email. “That is, HACA was historically overly lenient with its residents and that it was collecting a depressed amount of rent from residents.”

Melissa Maddox-Evans, the director of the Housing Authority of the City of Annapolis, took over in October 2019. (Paul Gillespie/The Capital Gazette)

Housing authority officials did not provide records requested in February by The Capital and ProPublica that sought information about how much money the agency brought in from court cases.

Officials said that they don’t track such information but plan to start in October. They also did not provide documents showing how much the agency has spent suing its residents. A failure to pay rent case costs $15 to file in court and $5 to serve the tenant, which would factor out to HACA spending more than $24,000 to sue its residents in 2018. But the fees can be passed on to the resident if a landlord wins and, since HACA succeeds in most cases, costs are likely much lower.

HUD officials declined interview requests. Spokeswoman Nika Edwards said in an email that tenants who lose income can request a decrease in rent, but she acknowledged that HUD does not check the accuracy of rent calculations or monitor enforcement on a local level. The federal agency also doesn’t track court cases or evictions.

Housing authorities across the country, many of which have substandard living conditions, are increasingly turning to rent collection to plug financial holes resulting from years of federal cuts. The efforts place a burden on residents, who often have no attorneys or other advocates who can help them, said Maren Trochmann, a former HUD official who served as division director for the agency’s Denver office of public housing.

Housing authorities are “walking this tightrope of trying to maintain financial solvency any way they can, and, in cases like this, they don’t have control over what Congress is going to do in terms of appropriations, so they focus on what they do control, and that’s often to the detriment of the tenants,” Trochmann said.

Attorneys with Maryland Legal Aid, who provide free legal representation to low-income and elderly county residents, said the scope and volume of failure to pay rent cases from the Annapolis housing authority is unlike anything they’ve experienced in their careers.

Lisa Sarro, the former supervising attorney, estimated that the legal aid office defended or advised more than 100 HACA residents in the past two years. Since 2018, HACA lawsuits made up about 75% of the public housing cases handled by the office, Sarro said.

“They are sucking up my team,” Sarro said in April. “We have to prioritize the use of our resources, and right now, we have to prioritize everything to public housing because there’s such a risk of people ending up homeless.”

In Gladden’s case, the Annapolis housing authority sued her five times in four months in 2018, accusing her of lying about losing her job. She eventually won, but the cases remain on her rental record.

Gladden wants to move to a privately owned apartment, a place that is safer for her daughter than the public housing complex where she lives, which has one of the highest concentrations of violent crime in the city.

She doesn’t make enough money but fears that if she ever does, she won’t be able to leave.

“It worries me a little because it can affect me in the long run when I want to move to another apartment complex,” Gladden said. “They see all those court cases and judgments. They’re not really looking into it to see if you won or anything like that.”

Accused of Fraud

In court that August, housing authority officials said Gladden failed to inform them quickly enough that she lost her job.

One official said that because Gladden hadn’t notified the housing authority within 30 days, she had to pay rent for the month despite being unemployed.

Gladden, one of the few residents who appeared in court to defend herself, disputed the claim. She said she first notified the authority on June 19, the day she lost her job, but was asked to bring proof that she no longer worked a second job at a cleaning company and to provide updated paycheck stubs.

Gladden told the judge that she delivered the paperwork nine days later. She had records stamped by the authority to prove her account.

“If they want me to pay, fine,” Gladden said in court. “I’m not going to fight and argue with these people about it, but I know what I did.”

Chermire Gladden was one of hundreds of residents sued by the Housing Authority of the City of Annapolis. (Paul Gillespie/The Capital Gazette)

District Judge John McKenna postponed a decision, asking the housing authority to return with a copy of written policies that outlined the timetable for residents to notify the agency of a loss of income. Only then, McKenna said, could he determine whether Gladden owed the money.

A week later, in front of a different judge, the housing authority dropped the claim about timeliness. Instead, officials accused Gladden of fraud. And now, they said she owed not one but two months of rent.

“Ms. Gladden has provided false documentation to the housing authority,” Willena Redic, then an assistant property manager, said in court on Aug. 16, 2018. “I have proof here. I have verification of employment that Ms. Gladden is still currently working to this day.”

Redic did not respond to questions from The Capital and ProPublica about the housing authority’s pursuit of Gladden. Maddox-Evans declined to comment on her behalf.

Stunned, Gladden asked the judge if she could see the documents Redic provided as proof for the allegation against her. In tiny gray print, a report listed payments that Gladden received from her employer after notifying the housing authority that she lost her job.

“This right here is money that was owed to me from my company,” Gladden said. “I did not work. They owed me this money from unpaid wages.”

The wages had already been factored into her rent payments, but Gladden didn’t have the paperwork or legal help to prove she was telling the truth. She told the judge that a union representative could corroborate her story.

“If you were working, you’d owe the rent of $604?” the judge asked.

“If I were working, yes, I would owe them the rent of $604 and I would have paid it,” Gladden responded. “I wouldn’t have wasted the court’s time in trying to not pay rent when I’ve been paying rent since I’ve been there.”

At the end of the 10-minute hearing, which was among the longest that day, the judge sided with the housing authority. He said he understood that the fraud allegation was in dispute but, given the lack of evidence, he ordered Gladden to pay money she knew she didn’t owe or have.

Gladden was dazed. A bailiff pulled her aside. He escorted her downstairs to get a list of churches and other nonprofit groups that could help her gather enough money.

Then, she recalled, he told her to get a lawyer.

Rent Cases Flood Courts

District Judge Jonas Legum worked his way through the docket in April 2018, reviewing dozens of cases filed by the housing authority. Some sought thousands of dollars in unpaid rent that had accumulated over months. Others attempted to collect amounts as low as $50.

Legum called one case, then another and another. Eventually, he paused.

“Did you have a changeover in management or something?” he asked.

Laughter ensued as at least six residents waited to dispute the cases filed against them. A representative for the housing authority chuckled. She told the judge the employee who was previously responsible for filing the court cases was no longer with the authority.

Legum called the next case.

At the time of the court hearing, the housing authority was under new leadership. The Annapolis oversight board had hired Beverly Wilbourn in May 2017 as the housing authority’s fifth executive director in two years.

The agency needed to account for more than $3 million in untracked spending after the Office of the Inspector General found in a 2016 audit that the housing authority mismanaged a federal grant and violated regulations that required a competitive bidding process while doling out millions of dollars in contracts.

It also was under a recovery agreement after receiving the federal government’s lowest rating of “troubled” for the third time in a decade. As part of the plan for improvement, HUD ordered the housing authority to make changes that included increasing revenue or decreasing spending, submitting financial information on time and enforcing rent payments.

Failure to comply could result in less funding, force HUD to fold the agency into another housing authority or place it under federal control, as has been done in Washington, D.C., and East St. Louis, Illinois, and threatened in New York.

Under Wilbourn, the Annapolis housing authority made a business decision. It would go after uncollected rent more aggressively.

Wilbourn, who left the housing authority in October 2019, declined interview requests from The Capital and ProPublica while she was leading the agency and after she departed.

Beverly Wilbourn, former executive director of HACA, in front of Harbour House on May 10, 2019. (Naomi Harris/The Capital Gazette)

But Eileen Neely, the former chief financial officer for the housing authority, said the decision was necessary because the cost of upkeep was outpacing the money collected from rent payments.

“For every dollar that we don’t collect from rent, that’s one fewer dollar we have to run that unit,” Neely said in an interview.

Like many housing authorities across the country, HACA has struggled with diminishing funding from the federal government. A decade ago, federal grants accounted for 74% of the agency’s revenue. In 2018, only 55% of the housing authority’s revenue came from federal funds, leaving it more dependent on rent collection.

The agency publicly reports financial information through annual audits, which are based on fiscal years.

According to an audit covering the period from July 2017 to June 2018, the agency collected about $200,000 more in rent from public housing properties than it did in the previous year. Total revenues from rent grew from $2.3 million to about $2.5 million.

But these increases could include a rise in the amount of rent residents pay per unit and higher occupancy rates. The housing authority did not provide The Capital and ProPublica with information reflecting how much of the additional revenue resulted from court cases.

Federal funding formulas for housing authorities factor in how much rent the agencies should collect each year. If a housing authority brings in fewer dollars from rent payments, it doesn’t get more money.

“It could have a domino effect in terms of the amount of money you have available to hire and pay staff, retain staff, the amount of money you have to train staff, or the amount of money you have to perform quality assurance,” said Seth Embry, a policy analyst with the Public Housing Authorities Directors Association, an organization that advocates for public housing authorities.

In August 2019, HACA temporarily lost the ability to seek unpaid rent in court after one of the residents the agency sued protested living conditions.

LaDawn Camp, who lived in a Newtowne 20 apartment plagued by leaks, mold and structural damage, fought her failure to pay case by arguing that the city of Annapolis had created a two-tiered system by inspecting and licensing every apartment complex except those run by the housing authority.

HACA’s attorney argued in court that HUD already inspected the properties and that additional city inspections would be an unnecessary burden.

In his ruling, McKenna said the city needed to either license the units or formally exempt the housing authority from inspections through legislation.

“These issues are now back where they belong, in the legislative arena,” McKenna said on the day of the ruling. “It is up to the City Council to decide what licensing requirements are required for HACA. There is clearly a need to do something.”

On that day, McKenna dismissed dozens of cases filed by the housing authority seeking rent from the previous four months. The ruling created confusion, according to Maddox-Evans, who said some residents incorrectly stopped paying rent altogether.

Sarro, the former legal aid attorney, and her colleagues represent 14 households in a separate ongoing federal discrimination lawsuit alleging that the city’s failure to inspect or license public housing properties forced residents to live in mold-plagued apartments that exacerbated their health problems.

More than a quarter of public housing properties in Maryland failed their last federal inspection, including five out of six in Annapolis. Two of the five, Newtowne 20 and Robinwood, are among the worst properties in the state, failing HUD inspections for violations that include structural damage, faulty plumbing and mold.

On Aug. 6, Maddox-Evans sent a letter to residents urging them to ask for a rent adjustment if eligible or to enter into a payment plan before Oct. 9, saying that HUD would not let the authority defer evictions beyond its already extended moratorium of Nov. 2.

In an email sent the same day, Maddox-Evans asked elected officials and community advocates for help reaching more than 200 residents with outstanding rent balances. She said some hadn’t paid since the pandemic started.

“Please help residents understand that if they believe their rent amounts are not correct, it is their responsibility to contact us, so that their rent ledger may be reviewed,” she wrote. “They cannot simply refuse to pay it. Please also inform them that they cannot withhold rent if they are not satisfied with maintenance conditions without going through the legal process to do so.”

Sarro worries that when the restrictions expire, residents like Gladden will again face debts they can’t pay and eviction orders they won’t be able to stop.

“I am looking at when we get to the end of this and what an absolute nightmare it is going to be,” Sarro said.

Five More Court Appearances in Four Months

After losing her case, Gladden walked out of the Annapolis courthouse worried that she could be evicted from her apartment if she was unable to pay the money she owed or if the housing authority sued her again.

She was scared to lose the home where her daughter’s certificates of achievement hang on the walls alongside a City Council commendation the mother received for administering life-saving Narcan to a person who had overdosed outside of the hotel where she used to work.

Gladden took the bailiff’s advice. She drove directly from the court to the Legal Aid office in downtown Annapolis.

“I was crying in the car because I didn’t know what to do next,” she said.

Eight days later, a sheriff’s deputy taped another court notice to Gladden’s mailbox. This time, the housing authority was suing her for not paying rent in August. Her next court date was on Aug. 30.

Gladden looks over letters and court notices from the Housing Authority of the City of Annapolis. (Paul Gillespie/The Capital Gazette)

“They kept filing on her month after month,” said Kathleen Hughes, the Legal Aid attorney who worked on Gladden’s case. “All the cases smushed together. It’s a high-pressure collection tactic. It’s the way they’re processing their collections, and they’re doing it under significant pressure. If you don’t pay us all this money, you’re out of here.”

The housing authority sued Gladden three more times in the months that followed.

At district court hearings in September and October, Hughes argued that Gladden had attempted to resolve the case through the housing authority’s grievance process, a remedy available to residents under federal law. Hughes said the housing authority denied Gladden’s request, claiming that she was ineligible because she didn’t file quickly enough.

Judges during both hearings asked Gladden and the housing authority to try to reach an agreement outside of court.

At a follow-up court date in November, the housing authority claimed Gladden and Hughes never showed up to a meeting that the agency set up to reach a resolution, but officials didn’t provide proof that they invited the women.

Again, another judge rescheduled the court hearing. He asked the housing authority to allow Gladden to participate in the grievance process before returning to court.

At a December meeting with the housing authority, Hughes argued that the agency should have lowered Gladden’s rent when she first told a property manager that she was unemployed. A property manager repeated the fraud accusation, saying Gladden had been paid during the weeks she was out of work.

When it was Gladden’s turn to talk, she explained how she’d tried to get her rent lowered on the first day of summer and how she got into an argument with the property manager, who wanted documentation she didn’t have. She said that she provided the additional documents later that month and left the office thinking her rent would be reduced. She explained how confused she felt when she received the first court notice and how the authority’s efforts to collect rent had felt like a “head hunt” ever since.

Hughes and Gladden left the meeting with the understanding the housing authority would make a decision on her case by the next court date on Dec. 28.

A few days before Christmas, Gladden was picking up dinner from Chipotle with Jazzlyn when her cellphone rang. It was Hughes. She’d won.

“I started screaming,” Gladden said. “I started screaming and crying.”

Four months after suing her for the first time, the housing authority admitted it made a mistake by not lowering her rent when she first reported losing her job.

The housing authority credited her account $1,128.

Mistakes Plague System

For residents like Gladden, the housing authority’s missteps, coupled with the court cases, led to legal judgments that threatened their ability to keep their homes and diminished their chances of finding new ones.

With a marred rental history, other landlords viewed them as risks.

In some cases, residents ended up in court after the housing authority refused to accept payments that fell short of the total amount owed.

The Annapolis housing authority restricts payments that cover only part of a month, said Cia Cook, the agency’s chief financial officer. But The Capital and ProPublica found instances where the authority rejected entire monthly payments because of past debt.

In November, the housing authority sued a resident, saying that her failure to pay one month made rent payments for the subsequent four months partial and invalid. After the court determined that the resident owed $1,588, she sent the housing authority another payment but was short about $300, which included $138 in late fees.

The housing authority returned more than $1,200 to the resident and filed for eviction, saying she hadn’t paid what she owed. The resident paid the full amount by Jan. 13, four days after a judge approved the eviction orders. Housing authority officials didn’t cancel the eviction warrant until a month later.

In another case, housing authority officials repeatedly asked a resident to prove that she was unemployed, suing her during the process. After her former employer faxed paperwork that showed her last day of work, the agency asked for a notarized form confirming her assertion that she was unemployed.

According to federal policy and the housing authority’s own rules, such a form is considered a “last resort” and is only required if all other steps are not fruitful.

The housing authority reduced the resident’s rent in September, at least four months after she first reported losing her job. Unlike with Gladden, the housing authority did not reimburse the resident after confirming that she had been unemployed, blaming her for the delay.

In an email, Maddox-Evans acknowledged that she had found an issue in the way the agency processed rent changes. She said she was taking additional steps to improve the process, including requiring more training for staff. She did not provide specifics or say whether there was more than one instance.

Tina Brown, a resident at Harbour House, was one such case.

For three years, Brown did laundry for the Naval Academy during the day and served food in the cafeteria at Anne Arundel Medical Center at night. She was doing well enough financially that she said she was finally ready to start saving for a house.

But in January, the hospital cut Brown’s night shift position and let her go. She reported her loss of income to the housing authority and asked for a reduction in her $1,065 monthly rent.

The housing authority agreed to lower Brown’s rent to $318 a month but said the reduction would not take effect until March. She would still have to pay $1,065 in February, an amount that was more than the roughly $600 she makes monthly.

The housing authority did not sue Brown. She was one of many residents shielded from lawsuits as the housing authority worked to license its properties. But the agency set up a payment plan requiring her to add $100 to her monthly payments.

“I know $100 doesn’t sound like a lot, but after the cable bill and the groceries, I don’t have the extra money,” Brown said in July.

Under federal law, housing authorities must lower rent “within a reasonable time” after a resident informs them of a decrease in income. HUD gives local agencies discretion to define “reasonable” and to create policies to implement changes in income.

The Annapolis housing authority’s written policies mandate that a rent change go into effect by the first of the month after it calculates the decrease if the tenant caused a delay, or the first of the month after the decrease should have been calculated if any delay was beyond the resident’s control.

The Capital and ProPublica asked the housing authority in July why officials required Brown to pay the full rent in February after the agency confirmed that she was unemployed. A week later, Maddox-Evans said the housing authority had made a mistake.

“Her account will be adjusted and she will be notified,” Maddox-Evans wrote in an email.

Brown called the housing authority after The Capital and ProPublica asked if her account had been credited. She said property managers initially told her that they knew nothing about the credit but later removed her from the payment plan.

“If I hadn’t said something, they would have never even took it off,” Brown said.

“I Never Stood Up for Myself”

Gladden is out of work again for the foreseeable future.

During a meeting in March, her boss announced that the bus company would not have jobs for employees while schools remained closed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Gladden still remembers her first call after hearing the news. From the company’s parking lot, she dialed the number for the housing authority. She recalls crying when the property manager told her that the rent for her apartment, which was now $811 a month, would not be reduced.

After learning of the conversation, Gladden’s boss offered her a temporary job cleaning buses. She wouldn’t work as many hours, but it would help fill the financial gaps. Fearing another court battle, Gladden agreed despite concerns of contracting COVID-19.

Checks from the bus company stopped on June 5. Gladden applied for unemployment and again asked the housing authority to lower her rent. This time, the agency agreed.

Food banks have kept groceries on the table since then. With Jazzlyn’s classes now online, Gladden has taken on teaching responsibilities, struggling to help her daughter with math homework until the early hours of the morning.

She’s also trying to improve her own financial circumstances, taking classes for her commercial driver’s license and her GED.

Gladden hopes to use the license to work as a mail carrier until she can get her law degree.

She wants to help residents who are sued by their landlords. She said she doesn’t want people to experience what she went through as she tried to prove that she was telling the truth.

“I never stood up for myself in anything,” Gladden said. “I always let people push me over. I knew this time was different because I knew deep down inside, I didn’t do what they said I did.”

Danielle Ohl is a reporter for The Capital. She is covering public housing in partnership with the ProPublica Local Reporting Network.

Agnel Philip contributed reporting.

Help Us Investigate

The Capital and ProPublica are continuing to investigate rent payment processes in Annapolis. If you have something to share about your experience in Annapolis public housing, or in federally subsidized housing in other cities, please fill out the form below, or email [email protected] to reach the reporting team. We especially want to hear about:

  • Experiences paying rent in subsidized housing
  • Lawsuits for rent or issues getting rent reduced during the pandemic
  • Living conditions and safety of your unit

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