Commentary: Rent Waiver Unnecessary and Ill-Advised

Renters across Maryland will need relief during the COVID-19 crisis. Photo by Josh Kurtz

In her March 30 Maryland Matters commentary, Delegate Jheanelle Wilkins commends Governor Hogan for  prohibiting evictions and utility shutoffs during the current COVID-19 crisis.

However, she also suggests that a 90-day waiver of residential rents with complete forgiveness of these obligations should be instituted.

We recognize and appreciate Delegate Wilkins’ unwavering support for residents, but this would be an unnecessary and ill-advised policy.

The United States Congress has stepped up to aid low- and moderate-income renters and homeowners alike during this crisis.

The CARES Act provides two major avenues of relief to individuals. The first is cash payments of $1,200 per adult and $500 per child to be distributed in the next three weeks to all persons with income under $75,000.  The second is expanded unemployment benefits.  Under this provision, for the next four months, each unemployed person will receive an extra $600 per week paid for by the Federal Government, along with the unemployment payment due under State rules.

And the definition of covered unemployed workers was expanded to include part-time workers and people working in the gig economy.

Congress took this action to help low- and moderate-income households meet their current financial obligations and keep the economy going during the crisis.  For all unemployed workers in Maryland who were making under $57,000 per year before this crisis, these payments will actually increase their household income during the next four months.  It is noteworthy that Congress did not decide to pay rent directly to landlords or reduce landlords’ expenses, but rather authorized money to go to low- and moderate-income households so they could pay basic expenses such as food and shelter.

Delegate Wilkins’ suggestion to institute a rent waiver, in addition to government assistance, flies in the face of the very reason Congress acted. Moreover, it demonstrates a complete misunderstanding of the service provided by rental housing owners, managers and their hardworking employees and the expense that providing those services entails.

None of the services that Delegate Wilkins and her fellow renters have come to rely on such as repairs, maintenance, and amenities, is without expense. The concept of suspending rent payments entirely for 90 days is impractical. Not only will it be destructive to housing stock throughout Maryland, but it would cause a significant increase in unemployment.

If rent payments were to cease, our members would be forced to lay off most, if not all, staff, which would lead to stopping most, if not all, service and maintenance work. If that stops, properties will fall into disrepair.

The Apartment and Office Building Association of Metropolitan Washington (AOBA) and Maryland Multi-Housing Association (MMHA) urge renters and residential housing providers to communicate and work in tandem to address challenges during these unprecedented times. AOBA and MMHA applaud the leadership of Governor Hogan and support the insightful action taken by Congress who, in passing the CARES Act, understood the need for citizens to pay for essential expenses such as rent, utilities and food. And we urge everyone to use these benefits wisely.

— PEGGY JEFFERS AND ADAM SKOLNIK

The writers are, respectively, Executive Vice President, Apartment and Office Building Association of Metropolitan Washington and Executive Director, Maryland Multi-Housing Association.