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COVID-19 in Maryland Working & the Economy

Md. Advocates Warn of Possible Loopholes in National Eviction Moratorium

Housing activists on the streets of Langley Park. Photo courtesy of CASA

Advocates in Maryland were pleasantly surprised when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a nationwide moratorium on evictions Tuesday — but they say the new order has “possible loopholes.”

The moratorium, which is set to last until the end of December, will likely offer protection to many tenants in Maryland, said Matt Hill, an attorney with the Public Justice Center. But Hill warned that tenants need to meet specific requirements to avoid eviction.

“There are some exceptions we’re very concerned about,” he said.

Maryland Matters previously reported that, in order to avoid eviction under the moratorium, a tenant will need to prove under oath that they:

  • Tried to obtain any available government assistance for rent or housing.

  • Won’t earn more than $99,000 in annual income in 2020, or no more than $198,000 if filing a joint tax return. Individuals are also eligible if they weren’t required to report any income in 2019 to the U.S. Internal Revenue Service, or if they received a CARES Act stimulus check.

  • Can’t pay the full amount of their rent because of “substantial loss of household income, loss of compensable hours of work or wages, a lay-off, or extraordinary out-of-pocket medical expenses.”

  • Are trying to make “timely partial payments that are as close to the full payment as the individual’s circumstances may permit, taking into account other nondiscretionary expenses.”

  • Would be made homeless if evicted, or forced to live into a new “congregate or shared-living setting.”

Carol Ott, the tenant advocacy director of the Fair Action Housing Center of Maryland, said she’s encouraging her clients to read the entire order. She said the order will likely help “very specific tenants.”

“It’s not going to apply to everybody,” Ott said. “In fact, it’s not going to apply to a lot of people. It’s really important that people read it before they get all excited about it.”

Hill noted that those who violate the order face harsh penalties: Individuals could face up to a $100,000 fine and a year in jail if they go against the order. If that violation results in a death, the fine goes up to up to $250,000. Companies that violate the order are subject to a $200,000 fine per event, or a fine of $500,000 if the violation results in a death.

And if a tenant lies about any of the five requirements set forth by the order, he or she could be charged with perjury. Under federal law, perjury carries a penalty of up to five years in prison.

While Hill welcomes the moratorium, he warned that an eviction crisis will continue to loom in the not-so-distant future until local, state and federal governments start doling out rental relief funding.

“It doesn’t solve the bigger problem with the lack of meaningful rental assistance,” he said.

Adam Skolnik, the executive director of the Maryland Multi-Housing Association, warned that a blanket moratorium without additional rental assistance would just be delaying an inevitable disaster.

He said he expects rising rents and a worsening lack of affordable housing if no government assistance comes through to landlords and tenants.

“Property owners are going to need to make up those funds one way or another,” Skolnik said.

Demands (and attempts) for rental relief continue

Democratic lawmakers, including Maryland House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) and Attorney General Brian E. Frosh, urged Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) this week to offer more money for rental assistance.

In a letter to Hogan, Jones said the $30 million in federal funding that the governor designated for rental relief in the early days of the pandemic is far too low to make a difference to Marylanders facing eviction.

It would take $238 million to cover just one month of rent for the more than 200,000 Marylanders that the National Low Income Housing Coalition says need immediate assistance, she wrote.

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

Michael Ricci, a spokesman for Hogan, told Maryland Matters that the administration will consider Jones’ suggestions. He added that state officials’ hands are tied when it comes to providing more rental assistance: Previous attempts to secure more federal funding for eviction prevention were shot down by FEMA.

Some local governments have set up their own relief programs: Baltimore City’s Board of Estimates approved a roughly $30 million eviction program on Wednesday. The program is set to launch in late September.

The $29.8 million program will draw a mix of federal CARES Act relief funding from multiple city agencies, according to a news release. Anyone can apply, but need to meet the certain income criteria:

  • Have a household income of 50% or less of the average medium income

  • Demonstrate a COVID-19-related financial impact

  • Provide proof of pending eviction proceedings

It’s unclear whether the new CDC moratorium will affect the program’s requirement for applicants to prove “pending eviction proceedings.”

“With the economic impact of COVID-19 continuing, and delinquency rates at more than twice the normal level among renters, it was clear we needed to bring more relief,” the city’s Acting Housing Commissioner Alice Kennedy said in a statement. “This Eviction Prevention program is a true citywide response to an unprecedented crisis, and with it we are building a foundation of resources and collaboration that will serve our city over the long term.”

Montgomery County officials approved an additional $20 million for rental relief and eviction prevention in late July. That additional funding is set to go toward the county’s existing homelessness prevention programs, including the county’s existing COVID-19 rental relief program.

The county’s rental relief program was quickly overwhelmed with applications when it launched earlier this year, Montgomery County Executive Marc B. Elrich (D) told lawmakers during a June hearing. Local officials have repeatedly warned that they’ll need additional federal or state assistance to help renters.

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Md. Advocates Warn of Possible Loopholes in National Eviction Moratorium