Counties Coming Up With Ways to Aid Struggling Renters

Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman signs a fair housing bill into law last fall. Arundel Community Development Services photo

Anne Arundel County has launched an eviction prevention program designed to help residential tenants struggling to make rent or utility payments due to the outbreak of COVID-19 remain in their homes.

It will largely be funded through slot machine proceeds from the Maryland Live! casino in Hanover, which is currently shuttered due to the pandemic.

“While Maryland courts have suspended evictions and foreclosures for the time being during this crisis, many renters will still owe rent at the end of the day and many landlords will still owe mortgage payments,” Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman (D) said in a statement. “This program will help people stay on track so that when the moratorium is lifted, they do not have a bigger problem with months of arrears and late fees.”

The Eviction Prevention Program, an initiative the county developed with the Local Development Council (LDC), will provide temporary assistance to households with incomes up to 80% of the so-called Area Median Income adjusted for household size (about $75,000 for a family of four).

The LDC was established to provide guidance to the county government and the nonprofit housing agency Arundel Community Development Services on how the county should spend slot machine proceeds.

The county is investing $500,000 in funds that were granted to the nonprofit housing agency to support affordable rental housing. The LDC and Pittman have invested another $500,000 from the video lottery terminal revenues.

This combination of funding will allow the program to serve low and moderate income households affected by COVID-19 throughout the county. LDC funds will be focused on county residents who live or were employed in the three zip codes surrounding the casino, while the county funds will be available for households countywide.

Additional funds for the program are expected to be made available through the newly approved federal Emergency Solutions Grant COVID funding that is coming to local governments.

“Much of the county’s workforce, including retail workers and hospitality staff from around Arundel Mills Mall and Live! Casino and Hotel — the LDC’s target area — are now out of work,” said Karen McJunkin, chairwoman of the LDC.  “We wanted to deploy funds swiftly and efficiently to help these folks avoid being evicted down the road.”

To complement this countywide program, Arundel Community Development Services is also offering free financial counseling for residents who are struggling financially, especially if they are having trouble making their mortgage payments.

Case managers at ACDS and partner agencies will work with applicants to process their eviction requests remotely, the county said. Participants will need to provide documentation that shows their income was disrupted in the wake of COVID-19, a letter from their landlord that they are in arrears, and household income documentation.

Beginning Monday, interested residents can apply to the Eviction Prevention Program and access the free confidential financial and foreclosure prevention counseling services by calling the agency at 410-222-7600 (then dial zero).

Anne Arundel County isn’t the only local government trying to help tenants.

Earlier this week, members of the Montgomery County Council, led by Councilmember William L. Jawando (D), introduced a bill called the COVID-19 Renter Relief Act, which would prohibit landlords from increasing rent for residential tenants during and within 30 days after the public health emergency.

Montgomery County Councilmember William L. Jawando (D). File photo

During an emergency, a landlord would be prohibited from raising a tenant’s rent. If, prior to the emergency, the landlord had notified the tenant of an upcoming increase, the landlord would be required to instruct the tenant to disregard that notice. The bill would prohibit a landlord from notifying the tenant of a rent increase during the emergency or within 30 days after the emergency expires.

“We need to ensure that vulnerable residents, many of whom are already dealing with heightened anxiety and heightened risk of infection, do not also have to worry about large, unanticipated rent increases and about whether they can afford to stay in their dwelling places during this crisis,” Jawando said.

Jawando said his office has received reports of tenants being hit up for rent increases of between 20% to 40% in the midst of the pandemic.

But in a Facebook post, Bruce H. Lee, president and CEO of the Lee Development Group in Silver Spring, pushed back against the legislation, saying he was offended by the implication “that rent gouging is a rampant and widespread issue.”

“On the contrary,” Lee wrote, “landlords across Montgomery County are holding rents at current levels and going above and beyond to work with hundreds of tenants who cannot make their rent.”

Lee went on to call Jawando’s measure “reckless and damaging legislation on so many levels. Even during the worst economic apocalypse our county, state, nation and the world has ever faced, Councilmember Will Jawando is making sure that our county remains the number one destination for being anti-business. Congratulations!”

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Josh Kurtz
Co-founder and Editor Josh Kurtz is the leading chronicler of Maryland politics and government. He began covering the State House in 1995 for The Gazette newspapers, and has been writing about state and local politics ever since. He later became an editor at Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper, and spent eight years at E&E News, an online subscription-only publisher of news websites covering energy and environmental issues. For seven of those years, he led a staff of 20 reporters at E&E Daily, which covers energy and environmental policy on Capitol Hill and in national politics. For 6 1/2 years he wrote a weekly column on state politics for Center Maryland and has written for several other Maryland publications as well. Kurtz has given speeches and appeared on TV and radio shows about Maryland politics through the years.