An Interdisciplinary Approach to Justice Prof. Weimer Examines Links Between Housing and Health

Maryland Carey Law Professor Deborah Weimer, JD, LLM, became aware of the challenges facing tenants in Baltimore in an unexpected way. She was teaching the HIV/AIDS Legal Clinic in Maryland Carey Law’s Law & Health Care Program when she realized the patients had more legal issues than the family law or employment matters she anticipated. In fact, she found secure housing is a major issue for the poor in Baltimore, and having a safe place to live is critical for HIV/AIDS patients.

“The whole national movement that our HIV clinic has been part of talks about the care continuum,” Weimer said. “How do you keep people with chronic illness connected to their health care and taking their medication? Part of what we look at are the social determinants of health. If someone is not in stable housing, that’s a major problem that undermines their ability to take care of their health.”

“How do you keep people with chronic illness connected to their health care and taking their medication? Part of what we look at are the social determinants of health. If someone is not in stable housing, that’s a major problem that undermines their ability to take care of their health.”

As they took on clients with HIV/AIDS and housing issues, Weimer and her clinic students began to discover the terrible conditions that many low income people are forced to live in, and the frequency with which they experience eviction. Though many of these tenants are financially eligible for housing subsidies, funds are insufficient to assist all those in need.

Thousands of tenants are evicted in Baltimore City each year for failure to pay rent. And these tenants are typically unaware of their rights to bring up the threats to health and safety in much of the old housing stock in Baltimore City. In part because of the overwhelming numbers, legal representation is rarely available to tenants, though nonprofits such as the Public Justice Center and Legal Aid have worked for years in the housing court.

Meanwhile, the judges who serve in housing court rotate through for weeks at a time, spending most of their time hearing other types of cases. This means tenants who aren’t fully aware of their rights are presenting cases before judges who aren’t always thoroughly familiar with the intricacies of housing law, particularly where subsidized housing is concerned, Weimer said.

In 2011, Weimer co-authored a chapter on “Patients and Families Living with HIV/AIDS” in the book “Poverty, Health and Law” (E. Tyler et al, Carolina Academic Press) that explained the link between the social determinants of health and HIV infection. The book further explains that poor housing conditions lead to numerous negative health consequences including asthma, lead poisoning, and injury that are difficult to escape because of the high costs of quality housing alternatives.

In the fall semester of 2013, Weimer decided to do something more about the problem, founding the Landlord-Tenant Clinic at Maryland Carey Law. Clinic students represent individual clients in housing court on warranty of habitability, rent escrow, retaliatory eviction, termination of lease and rent collection cases. Students also consider housing reform proposals in the city and state.

Professor Weimer joined the faculty on a full-time basis in 1988, after many years in public interest law practice. She leads the Health Care Delivery and HIV / AIDS Clinic and the Landlord Tenant Clinic in addition to teaching in the areas of Civil Procedure and Legal Analysis and Writing.

Spring 2017 Clinic students will initiate a new project for the Landlord-Tenant Clinic. Weimer and students will bring clients to meet with just-elected Baltimore City Council members to give them concrete examples – many of them health related - of the housing crisis facing the City, and to urge them to address it with a new approach.

One significant new idea, being developed in conjunction with the Public Justice Center and other advocacy organizations, is to modify the licensing process for landlords to verify that properties that are well maintained, safe and livable before they begin collecting rent. Also, licensing should apply to all landlords, including those who rent single family homes. Some properties in Baltimore are virtually abandoned, with unresponsive landlords who live out of town or even out of the country, Weimer said.

A consistent theme across all of Weimer’s work with vulnerable populations is understanding how social factors – such as housing – profoundly influence health and well-being.

“We recently started to see this situation where tenants pay their security deposit and their first month’s rent and they move into their apartment to find there is no BGE service,” she explained. “They call BGE to have it turned on in their name and they realize the place has been abandoned for years, there’s not even a BGE connection. You end up with tenants without heat in the winter.”

Students will examine the idea of City Council legislation that would develop a licensing process for landlords to have their properties inspected and added to a registry of approved rentals. “The property would have to be inspected and approved as safe and adequate,” Weimer said. “If not, the landlord can’t use the housing court to collect their rent. It would shift the burden to the landlord.”

In addition, many small, well-intentioned landlords need assistance to provide adequate housing to Baltimore City tenants. Baltimore City could play a role in supporting and rewarding good landlords.

A consistent theme across all of Weimer’s work with vulnerable populations is understanding how social factors – such as housing – profoundly influence health and well-being. Looking to the future, she and her students will continue to work with Baltimore tenants, who often find themselves virtually “powerless” in the housing court system, Weimer said.

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