Local Officials Say They Need Help to Stop Tidal Wave of Evictions

Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich (D). Photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

As the July 25 end of the federal moratorium on evictions looms, local government officials in Maryland say they can’t stop a housing crisis on their own.

Some 20,000 households in Montgomery County could face eviction when the federal moratorium expires on July 25, Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich (D) told lawmakers during a Monday House Environment and Transportation Committee virtual meeting.

“We’re facing a tsunami of potential evictions,” Elrich said.

And more than 50,000 residents of Baltimore City are at risk of eviction when evictions resume, Councilman Bill Henry, who recently won the city’s Democratic primary for comptroller, said in a June 22 city council meeting.

The Covid-19 pandemic led to mass layoffs across the United States, and spurred Congress to issue a nationwide moratorium on evictions months ago.

Maryland has seen more than half a million unemployment claims as a result of the economic collapse brought on by the pandemic.

Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) issued an executive order on March 16 that prevents some evictions as long as Maryland’s state of emergency is active. The state of emergency is still in place.

Hogan’s executive order requires tenants to prove economic hardship due to COVID-19 to avoid eviction. Advocates have called on Hogan to issue a total moratorium on all evictions, saying his executive order has significant loopholes.

The job losses amid coronavirus-related shutdowns have led to rent delinquency rates that are nearly double what they were a year ago in some areas.

“Unless all the jobs miraculously come back, we’ve got a real problem on our hands,” Elrich said.

Aseem Nigam, the director of housing and community affairs for Montgomery County, said the county has already set up rental assistance programs, including $3.5 million in grants for rent already owed and up to three months of assistance.

In addition to those funds, Montgomery County is also using approximately $1.95 million in federal funding to assist low-income tenants who’ve lost income due to COVID-19. County officials also used $5 million in county funds to set up one-time payments for low-income residents. As of June 2, Montgomery County’s emergency grant program had received the maximum number of applications to use up all of the available funding, according to the county’s website.

While those efforts might be a step in the right direction, Nigam said they won’t be enough to avert the “tsunami of evictions” that Elrich described.

“Can we do this alone?” Nigam asked, “Absolutely not.”

Some of Maryland’s other large jurisdictions have also taken steps to avert the oncoming slew of eviction filings. Natasha Mehu, the legislative director for the Maryland Association of Counties, said Baltimore City and Baltimore, Cecil, Garrett, Kent, Howard, Prince George’s and Talbot counties have all come up with some form of assistance.

She said some of those counties have been overwhelmed by the number of people signing up for rental relief.

“Some county programs received applications that exceed resources they can provide,” Mehu said.

Advocates and local officials alike have called on Gov. Hogan to provide more than $150 million in additional rent relief as the moratorium’s end approaches. Hogan recently committed $30 million to stopping evictions amidst the pandemic – $20 million to the federal Community Development Block Grant program for eviction prevention, and another $10 million  to the Assisted Housing Relief Program.

Karen Wabeke, a senior attorney at the Homeless Persons Representation Project, said the housing crisis existed long before the pandemic. Half of Marylanders don’t have money to set aside to cover three months’ expenses if they lose their jobs, Wabeke said.

People who make a lower income and people of color are disproportionately affected by housing instability, she said.

House Environment and Transportation Chairman Kumar P. Barve (D-Montgomery) noted that the General Assembly isn’t in session, and any action they take might be too late to help renters in need.

“We’re going to have to rely on executive orders for a great extent,” Barve said.