As the end of the federal moratorium on residential evictions looms, local government officials and advocates for the poor worry that thousands of Marylanders could soon lose their housing.
The Maryland judiciary has indicated it will resume hearing eviction cases on July 25, when the federal moratorium ends. The 120-day moratorium was part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, also known as the CARES Act, which was passed by Congress in March.
Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) also put a temporary halt on certain evictions in March via an executive order that prevents some evictions as long as Maryland’s state of emergency is active. That moratorium has loopholes, advocates say, and requires tenants to prove economic hardship due to COVID-19 to avoid eviction.
With a massive uptick in unemployment due to coronavirus shutdowns, many tenants in the state are at risk of losing housing. The Fair Action Housing Center of Maryland has seen a 400% increase in clients compared to last year, said Carol Ott, the center’s tenant advocacy director.
Ott said high unemployment will almost certainly lead to a higher amount of eviction filings.
“We’re going to see a flood of evictions,” Ott said. “Baltimore City in particular has the highest eviction filing rate in the state. It’s not unreasonable to imagine that it could be almost double the normal filing rate, simply because so many people lost their only sources of income.”
Baltimore previously ranked as having one of the highest eviction rates in the country, and recent research found that while 96% of landlords had representation to help with their cases in court, just 1% of tenants do.
The looming housing crisis has local government officials on edge. During their Monday night meeting, members of Baltimore City Council urged Hogan to allocate more money toward rent relief. Baltimore has allocated around $13 million in rental assistance, but officials said the city might need much more to avoid mass evictions.
Councilman Bill Henry, who recently won the city’s Democratic primary for comptroller, said rent delinquency rates in Baltimore are currently about twice what they were a year ago. He described the coronavirus as a “crushing blow to the economy” and said thousands of city residents could be at risk of eviction when the federal moratorium expires in July.
“The essential workers, who are disproportionately Black and Brown families, have been the hardest hit,” Henry told his fellow council members during the meeting.
Local government officials and advocates have called on Hogan to advocate more than $150 million in additional funding toward rental relief, and have demanded he expand his current eviction and utility shut-off moratoriums.
“To date, the Governor’s eviction moratorium only applies to some eviction actions and only if the tenant can prove a documented loss of income due to COVID-19,” the ACLU of Maryland, Homeless Persons Representation Project, and Public Justice Center wrote in a statement last month. “There are significant loopholes. Many landlords have continued to file eviction actions creating a mounting backlog that will only further overwhelm the judicial system. Also, the Governor’s order does not apply to all eviction actions.”
Low-income workers are disproportionately impacted by the economic hardships brought on by the coronavirus. Late rent payments seem to be more prominent in lower income housing, said Adam Skolnik, the executive director of the Maryland Multi-Housing Association, a trade group.
“Those people that are hit the hardest economically are people that are in service industries and other types of industries that are a little less well-paying,” Skolnik said. “We’re seeing a spike … our members are worried about it.”
Experts have long said that workers of color are far more likely to be paid poverty-level wages than white workers. Research has also shown that race is a factor in evictions. Ott said the evictions will shed an ugly new light on systemic racism.
“This is not a new problem,” Ott said. “We’re just seeing it in a very raw, new way.”
Skolnik added that most of the Maryland Multi-Housing Association’s members are working with tenants to come up with payment plans or even to defer payments, but Ott cautioned against relying on landlords to not evict tenants.
“I tend to not speculate on what people will or won’t do,” Ott said. “I tend to focus on what they’re doing.”
Landlords have joined tenants in asking Hogan to create a statewide rental assistance fund, Skolnik said. He said some federal efforts, like an additional $600 in weekly unemployment benefits, have clearly helped tenants.
Local governments can also take action to help tenants, although they might not be able to muster the resources necessary to stop mass evictions. Maryland Municipal League Policy Analyst Jim Peck noted that most municipalities in Maryland are small, with a median population of about 1,800, and said that it was “conceivable” for municipalities to pass ordinances addressing evictions and rent control.
“Municipalities have strong home rule authority,” Peck said.
He noted that it’s rare for a municipality to regulate rent in Maryland, with Baltimore and Takoma Park being some of the only examples, and added that tackling rent “would be new territory to the vast majority of municipal governments in Maryland.”
Natasha Mehu, the Maryland Association of Counties’ legislative director, said a number of counties have set up their own programs to provide rental relief. She said some of the counties’ rental relief programs were “flooded with applications, and some of them have already closed the program because there’s only so much money that is available for support.”