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Alleged Illegal Fees at Heart Of Class Action

P. Kenneth Burns / WYPR

A lawyer representing three members of a housing advocacy group says a Park Heights property manager is showing them one set of numbers and rent court judges another.

Zafar Shah, staff attorney with the Public Justice Center, says Sage Management goes “by the book” in rent court, but never reveals “agents fees” it charges tenants who are late on their rent. Those fees, which have left some tenants thousands of dollars in debt, are illegal in Maryland.

“In landlord/tenant matters before a district judge, a plaintiff landlord is not going to be able to try to collect additional agent fees,” says Shah.

The Public Justice Center, with assistance from the law firm of Goldman and Minton, has filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of Detrese Dowridge, Trachelle Speaks and Shonda Billings – Sage tenants and members of the Right to Housing Alliance –seeking more than $75,000 in damages.

Maryland law allows landlords to collect late fees – capped at five percent of monthly rent – and court fees. The housing alliance suit alleges that Sage Management illegally charged “agent fees.” It is open to past and present tenants of Sage properties going back to 2004, many of whom were charged hundreds in court and agent fees.

Richard Abramson, a leasing manager and voucher specialist with Sage Management, declined to comment for this story on behalf of the company.

Speaks, one of the plaintiffs, holds a Section 8 voucher from the Baltimore housing authority. She has rented an apartment in Kernan Gardens, on Forest Park Avenue,   since 2009. She fell behind on her share of the rent, $296, in March 2012.  When she caught up on her rent a year later, Sage claimed she owed another $1,300 in back fees.

“I don’t know how the fees increased like they did and they kept on increasing and increasing,” she says. And she says she no one in the rental office would explain the fees to her.

Dowridge has lived at Park Lane Apartments in Park Heights, another Sage property, for the last five years.  She works two jobs to pay her rent while attending school to become a pharmacy tech and caring for her son. She fell behind on her rent twice in 2011, but later got on track. Nonetheless, last June the company claimed she still owed more than $2,000 in court and agent fees.

“I complained about it but they would give me this story about how they have the right to do that,” says Dowridge.

The Right to Housing Alliance says more than 50 tenants sent a certified letter to Sage officials in January asking the company to stop “accounting practices [they] believe are predatory and in violation to [city and state laws].” The letter also demanded an audit of all of the books, a refund on the agent fees and mold and pest remediation at their properties.

Gordon Horwitz, owner of Sage Management, did not respond to the letter.