Head to Court, Advocates Advise Tenants Facing Rental Evictions

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With failure-to-pay-rent cases set to resume next week, housing advocates and lawyers are urging Marylanders who face eviction to fight for their housing in court.

Maryland’s District Court is slated to begin hearing new failure-to-pay-rent cases on Monday. Advocates expect a wave of evictions after those overdue rent cases are heard, because many Marylanders have lost income due to COVID-19.

Warrants of restitution that were filed before courts shut down March 16 are moving through the courts now. They are the last step landlords must take in seeking court approval to evict a tenant.

Recent estimates from Stout, a Chicago-based consulting firm, show some 274,000 households in Maryland — almost 40% of those who rent — have lost income due to the COVID-19 pandemic and could soon face eviction.

Those Marylanders need to show up to court if they’re served an eviction notice, said Amy P. Hennen, the director of advocacy and financial stabilization at the Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service, a Baltimore-based nonprofit legal group.

“We are anticipating  a tidal wave of all kinds of cases, but especially eviction cases,” Hennen said. “The process of attempting to help every single one of those folks get exactly what they need is rather daunting, but we’re going to try.”

Hennen warned that, if a tenant doesn’t appear in court to challenge an eviction, their landlord will be able to start the eviction process soon after. She said that when tenants appear in court it “fully flips [the eviction] on its head.”

Many tenants in Maryland are confused about the expiration of the moratorium, and some believe they’re still protected, Hennen said. She said a vast majority of tenants do not have a lawyer to represent them in eviction cases. Another Stout study this year found that, while roughly 96% of landlords have legal representation during eviction cases, only 1% of renters do.

Marylanders living in homes with mortgages backed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac won’t have to worry about eviction until the end of the year: The Federal Housing Finance Agency extended its moratorium on single-family homes with those mortgages on Thursday. The congressional moratorium that expired on July 25 covered those homes, and also protected people living in federal housing assistance programs.

The Center of Budget and Policy Priorities, a progressive think tank, estimated that less than half of the United States’ 43.7 million renter households were covered by the CARES Act moratorium.

The Federal Housing Finance Agency’s moratorium will have a “minimal impact” when it comes to preventing evictions,  said Matt Hill, an attorney with the Public Justice Center, a non-profit legal aid center that advocates for and represents low-income clients in civil cases.

He noted that many renters won’t know if their home is backed by a Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac mortgage.

Carol Ott, tenant advocacy director for the Fair Housing Action Center of Maryland, said many of her current clients are facing eviction for the first time in their life. She noted that one such client has lived in the same apartment for more than 20 years and, up until the coronavirus pandemic, hadn’t missed a payment.

“So many of these people, they’ve lost so much of their income,” Ott said. “They’ve gone through their savings, they’ve gone through their retirement accounts, their 401k or IRA, whatever it was that they were trying to establish for themselves. I think there are going to be far-reaching, very long-term economic consequences.”

Ott and other advocates have previously criticized Republican Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr.’s ongoing stay on evictions, saying it doesn’t go far enough to protect renters. Hogan’s order requires tenants to show documented proof their economic hardship was caused by the coronavirus pandemic in order to avoid eviction.

There isn’t a lot of guidance as to how tenants can use Hogan’s order to defend against failure to pay rent cases, said Matt Hill, an attorney with the Public Justice Center, a non-profit legal aid center that advocates for and represents low-income clients in civil cases.

“It’s not a moratorium,” Hill said. “It has a very, very limited defense that only applies, essentially, in failure to pay rent actions when you can show with adequate documentation that you’ve lost income, specifically because of COVID-19. We don’t know how that’s gonna play out.”

Hogan’s stay on evictions remains in effect as long as Maryland is under a state of emergency. Lawmakers and advocates, including Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh (D) have repeatedly called on the governor to extend and expand his stay into 2021.

Hill said a flood of evictions could overwhelm the state’s courts — and he worries that old, poorly ventilated courthouses could become venues for super spreading of the virus that causes COVID-19. On top of that worry, Hill said the Public Justice Center’s resources are stretched thin in a normal year, and it could be difficult to provide representation to all tenants who need it.

Hennen urged tenants to put on masks and head to court if they get an eviction notice.

“In spite of the risk, and in spite of the concern, if they show up to court their outcome will be much better than if they don’t,” she said.

Landlords are also feeling the economic squeeze. Small landlords in particular have borne the brunt of tenants’ lost income, and some have been forced to sell their rental units.

Arlene Montemarano, who owned and rented a few affordable apartments in Silver Spring, said a moratorium extension alone won’t stop an onslaught on evictions. She said landlords and tenants alike will need more rent assistance to get through the pandemic.

“We, as regular people renting to regular people, since March are being asked to bear the burden of supporting tenants who’ve lost their jobs because of the pandemic,” Montemarano said. “We can’t afford to do that anymore. We’ll no longer have this rental available for those who really need it.”

State officials previously designated some $30 million in federal funding toward rental relief, but advocates say that number is far too low to make a difference. CASA, an immigrants’ rights group, has repeatedly called on Hogan to provide more than $150 million in additional rent relief.

State officials say their hands are largely tied on rental relief until additional federal funding becomes available.

Hill noted that certain evictions have occurred even before failure to pay rent cases are set to resume. He said he’s seen a rise in “tenant holding over” cases, which occur when a tenant remains on a leased property after a lease expires, or if a landlord wants to repossess the leased premises.

Hill previously said that some of his clients have month-to-month leases, and some have already received 60-day notices to vacate their homes. He noted that notices to vacate and tenant holding over cases skyrocketed during the pandemic.

Hogan spokesman Michael Ricci told Maryland Matters that the state’s request for additional rental relief funding was denied by FEMA.

Ott said the pandemic is shedding light on an affordable housing crisis that existed well before the outbreak of COVID-19, and that she expects the oncoming flood of evictions and foreclosures to extend well into the future.

“I don’t think anybody can predict how this is going to end or when, because I just don’t think there is an end to it,” Ott said. “Not anytime soon.”