Jones, Frosh Press Hogan on Rent Relief and Other Tenant Protections

House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County). Photo by Danielle. E. Gaines

With more than 200,000 Maryland households at risk of eviction after failure-to-pay rent cases resumed in the state’s courts on Monday, state lawmakers are demanding more rental assistance money from Republican Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr.

The $30 million in federal aid that Hogan committed toward rental assistance in the early days of the pandemic is far too low to help Maryland families, House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) wrote in a Monday letter, which was cosigned by dozens of state delegates.

Jones said it would take $238 million to cover just one month of rent for the 223,000 Marylanders that the National Low Income Housing Coalition says need immediate assistance. She warned of a “wave of evictions” unless Hogan takes fast action to help Marylanders facing eviction.

“You have ignored calls from legislative leaders and advocates to prohibit evictions until 2021,” Jones wrote. “Experts now project that hundreds of thousands of Marylanders may be at risk of eviction in the coming months and year.”

She noted that people of color, and Black women in particular, will be disproportionately impacted by evictions. Estimates from the Chicago-based consulting firm Stout show that up to 274,000 Maryland households have lost income due to the coronavirus pandemic, and are at risk of eviction.

Jones urged Hogan to offer tenants free legal assistance, and noted that few of those facing eviction can afford an attorney. Advocates and lawyers say turning up to court gives tenants a chance of avoiding eviction, although an overwhelming majority of renters lack representation in eviction cases, according to a separate study from Stout.

Hogan should also prevent landlords from charging coronavirus-caused late fees, Jones wrote. She asked the governor to create a database to monitor trends in evictions complaints and see which communities are most affected by evictions.

“With a couple strokes of a pen, you can alleviate imminent hardship for thousands of families in our state,” Jones wrote.

Michael Ricci, a spokesman for Hogan, did not respond directly to the lawmakers’ call but previously told Maryland Matters that the administration’s hands are tied when it comes to providing more rental assistance. The state is strapped for cash due to the pandemic, and officials’ previous attempts to secure more federal funding for eviction prevention were shot down by FEMA.

FEMA approved the state’s request for an additional $300 a week in unemployment insurance last month. That additional insurance came after an extra $600 a week in unemployment expired in late July, along with the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act’s moratorium on evictions.

FEMA says the additional $300 a week will continue until the agency has expended $44 billion from the disaster relief fund, the disaster relief fund’s balance reaches $25 billion, additional federal unemployment compensation is passed, or until Dec. 27.

Jones warned that less federal unemployment insurance puts even more Marylanders at risk of eviction.

The lawmakers aren’t the only state officials calling for more help from Hogan for renters. Attorney General Brian E. Frosh (D) and the Attorney General’s Access to Justice Task Force sent letters to Hogan Tuesday requesting that a portion of CARES Act funding be dedicated to stem the tide of mass evictions and debt collections.

The task force suggested that CARES Act funding could be used by the state for rental assistance, legal aid services for tenants facing eviction, case management and counseling for families whose lives have been devastated by the pandemic, and a public awareness campaign to make Marylanders aware of government resources.

Frosh also suggested in a letter to Hogan that approximately $8 million in leftover monies from a 2018 state settlement with Deutsche Bank over mortgages be used for rental assistance and civil legal aid.

Attorney General Brian E. Frosh (D) at the Maryland Association of Counties summer conference in Ocean City last year. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines

“Temporary rental assistance and civil legal aid will prevent families and all of their possessions from being put out on the street as a result of a pandemic that is completely outside of their control,” Frosh said in the letter. “It will also prevent the many consequences that flow from loss of a home, including: increasing educational inequities, jeopardizing chances for employment, ruining credit scores, endangering the physical and mental health of the tenants and elevating the risk of spread of COVID-19.”

Carol Ott, tenant advocacy director for the Fair Housing Action Center of Maryland, has previously noted that many of her current clients have a lengthy history of on-time rent payments, and have never faced an eviction before.

“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.”

Marylanders are offered some protection by Hogan’s stay on certain evictions, which requires tenants to prove their loss of income was due to COVID-19 in order to avoid losing their homes. That executive order has loopholes — and some landlords have already been exploiting them.

Matt Hill, an attorney with the Public Justice Center, a non-profit legal aid center, said he’s seen an uptick in certain cases not covered under the order.

The Federal Housing Finance Agency extended its moratorium on single-family homes with mortgages backed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac last week, meaning people living in those homes won’t have to worry about eviction until the end of the year. Hill said that moratorium will have a “minimal impact” in preventing evictions.

Landlords have warned that, without additional rental assistance, a blanket moratorium on evictions would be a disaster. Some small landlords who provide affordable housing have been forced to sell their units due to the impact of the pandemic.

Adam Skolnik, the executive director of the Maryland Multi-Housing Association, said additional rental assistance would be “massively impactful” in terms of preventing evictions. He said the best thing tenants can do if they’re struggling to pay rent is to stay in touch with their landlords.

“We are totally in favor of more rental assistance,” Skolnik said, adding that his association has been urging its members to avoid charging coronavirus-related late fees since early March.

Skolnik said he supports Hogan’s current moratorium on evictions, but added additional restrictions without additional rental assistance would be “kicking the can down the road.”

Various local governments have set up rental relief programs since the onset of the pandemic, but were quickly overwhelmed with more applications than they could afford. Montgomery County Executive Marc B. Elrich (D) told lawmakers during a June meeting that, unless his jurisdiction gets more money from the state, they will face a “tsunami of potential evictions.”

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