Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.
Lawmakers have recently proposed several bills dedicated to mediating the landlord-tenant power struggle in Maryland. The latest is dubbed the Jared Kushner Act, after President Trump’s son-in-law, who’s infamous for his predatory conduct as a landlord. It would block state judges from “issuing civil arrest warrants for tenants being sued for less than $5,000 in unpaid rent,” according to The Baltimore Sun.
Essentially, this bill would protect tenants from going to jail because they’re poor and getting an arrest on their record to show for it. It’s progressive, humane and responsive legislation for an increasingly inaccessible housing market turning people to rent. It’s appropriate not just for Baltimore but for a state with the fifth-highest rent in the country.
Fundamentally, jailing people who are in debt perpetuates cycles of poverty; they can’t make money if they’re isolated in a cell, and criminalizing them just sets up bigger barriers in their futures. There’s no great benefit to arresting people who are behind on a couple of months’ rent; they’re not some threat to society being contained, nor are they being rehabilitated or taught any real lesson except, maybe, don’t be poor. Kushner’s case has shown us how legal action can be a tool for landlords to cash out on their tenants, and it’s important legislation keeps sleazy behavior from becoming normalized.
That we go after debtors in essentially the same way we go after violent criminals is another contributor to the perception our country hates the poor, and it shows how artificial the divide between the societal good and bad is. People who commit crimes are confined to prisons, to be taken care of out of sight and out of mind with the expectation that it’ll deter them in the future, or at least keep them isolated so they can’t reoffend. The public consciousness doesn’t think about prisoners’ struggles with mental illness, cycles of abuse and desperation, finances and lack of education because it isn’t pushed to think about prisoners at all.
The private prison system also turns a profit, often by taking advantage of some of the most vulnerable people in society. A landlord should not seek to be a jailor.
Moreover, $5,000 is such a meager sum in the grand scheme of housing costs that it shouldn’t even invite persecution. In the D.C. metropolitan area, the fair market rate for just a studio apartment in 2018 is $1,504, and as of 2015, about one-fifth of D.C. households spent more than half their income on housing and utilities costs — a situation that classifies them as being under “severe housing burden.” It’s not hard to end up with a few thousand dollars in overdue rent after a couple of months, particularly if you have an unforeseen financial emergency, such as hospitalization or unemployment.
Limiting the avenues for landlord exploitation is important and impacts such a high volume of people that we should be paying attention to the Jared Kushner Act, and fighting the corruption of America’s justice system on every stage is the best way to enact change. Or, at the very least, it’s worth giving Maryland tenants a little more peace of mind.
Sona Chaudhary, opinion editor, is a sophomore English and geology major. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.