Del. Jheanelle Wilkins: Rent Is Due April 1

Del. Jheanelle Wilkins (D-Montgomery). Photo by Danielle E. Gaines

On April 1, Marylanders across our state who rent their homes will soon have a day of reckoning: the rent is due. On top of the fears of contracting COVID-19 and the many impacts of social distancing and closures, the reality is that the rent is due.

As a result of the coronavirus pandemic, many residents have lost their source of income, making it impossible to meet financial obligations like paying their rent. The compounding effect is that a high-cost bill like rent can quickly add up to tens of thousands of dollars in a very short time.

From recent unemployment insurance data, we know that at least 42,000 residents across Maryland have lost their jobs. When we come out on the other side of this pandemic, it’s critical that residents and families don’t have a steep climb to pay back rent debt and fight evictions as they work to rebuild their finances.

According to the Maryland Center for Economic Policy, 49% of Maryland renters pay more than 30% of their income in rent. This means that before this pandemic, many Maryland families were already burdened by rent while struggling to pay for other necessities like food and health care.

Just last week, I advocated with Montgomery County leaders to help a senior resident who was served with eviction papers in the midst of this crisis. As most renters do, she proactively reached out to her landlord to communicate and explain her situation well ahead of time. Her plea was to no avail — she needed her elected officials to step in and help.

Renters should not have to bear the impending burden of rent debt alone. Putting the onus solely on renters by instructing them to negotiate with their landlords without the backing of any executive action or directives to landlords is unfair. Renters have always been advocates for themselves and their families, and now more than ever, they need the government to step up and have their backs.

We saw this rent crisis coming. Immediately after the coronavirus pandemic became an emergency in Maryland, I joined colleagues like Del. Vaughn Stewart (D-Montgomery) to call for the immediate prohibition of evictions and foreclosures, automatic renewal of leases, requirement of payment plans, and so on. I commend Governor Hogan for his swift action to prohibit evictions and utility service shut-offs, and I hope we can come together to identify additional solutions to lift the burden on renters.

There are many approaches to mitigating this issue. In Delaware, Gov. John Carney set up a fund to help renters cover their rent and bills. In New York, state Sen. Michael Gianaris introduced legislation to suspend residential and commercial rent payments for 90 days.

If this legislation passes, rent waived during this time period will not be required to be paid back. Mandatory renewal of leases or lease extensions are absolutely critical so that residents can stay in their homes during this crisis. Since evictions are currently prohibited, landlords should be banned from sending notices of intent to evict.

Both renters and landlords are facing varying financial situations and that should be taken into account in a program or executive action. These actions should not be mere suggestions — directives are necessary to protect Maryland families. Governor Hogan could take any of these bold steps by executive action today.

Although I’m focusing on residential renters, the same principles apply to homeowners with mortgages and small-and-micro businesses (especially those who don’t qualify for the governor’s small business relief programs) who are in dire need of help. Any package or actions for relief must include homeowners and small-and-micro businesses as well.

I have been a champion for pro-renter policy since my start in the Maryland General Assembly, and, as a renter myself, I intimately understand the challenges of this situation. The Maryland General Assembly is currently adjourned, which means emergency legislation to address this situation cannot be introduced.

From the start of this crisis, Governor Hogan has stepped up in many ways to make tough decisions in our state. It’s critical that he take action now to prevent this compounding rent crisis and ensure that renters don’t have to go it alone.

— JHEANELLE WILKINS

The writer, a Democrat, represents District 20 in the House of Delegates.