Chief Judge: Eviction Filings Face Court Backlog

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Social distancing and smaller dockets mean Maryland courts will take much longer than normal to process evictions, a judge told state lawmakers during a Wednesday morning briefing.

Even before the pandemic, courts were hard-pressed to process the state’s roughly 660,000 yearly eviction filings in a timely manner, District Court Chief Judge John P. Morrissey told members of the House Environment and Transportation Committee on Wednesday.

Now, after a lengthy pause in filings due to coronavirus-related shutdowns, the state’s judiciary will likely be faced with a huge volume of filings that will continue despite the recent Centers For Disease Control’s halt on certain evictions. Morrissey said courts normally try set in cases for hearing within five days, but said “the rules are kind of off” at the moment.

“There’s no way that we can possibly set in the number of cases that we would need to in order to accomplish that five-day rule,” Morrissey said. “We’re doing what we can under the circumstances.”

Morrissey noted that he ultimately couldn’t tell how long eviction filings are going to take in the midst of the pandemic. He said even the size of the courtrooms affects the speed of hearings.

“That causes us great concern, obviously… but under the current circumstances, there’s not much else we can do,” he said.

Del. Vaughn Stewart (D-Montgomery) raised a red flag over the many possible interpretations of the new CDC stay on evictions. He warned there seem to be “a lot of opportunities for interpretation” in the order, which lays out criteria for tenants to avoid eviction.

Tenants protected under the order must make less than $99,000 in annual income in 2020 or meet other income requirements; attempt to get any available government rental or housing assistance; try to make “timely partial payments;” and show they lost income.

The chief judge stopped short of calling the orders against evictions from the CDC and Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) “moratoriums.” Morrissey said they provide an affirmative defense to tenants facing eviction, but said he expects filings to resume after the judiciary’s own stay on new eviction filings ended last week.

Eviction filings are down so far this year, although Morrissey said that’s mostly due to the shuttering of courts between March and July. He noted there were some 16,000 failure-to-pay-rent filings in August – more than in previous months.

State and local efforts for rental relief continue

Calls on Hogan to provide more money for rental relief have continued in recent weeks, with Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh (D) and other prominent lawmakers demanding the governor use more federal relief money to prevent evictions.

At a Wednesday afternoon Joint Committee on Ending Homelessness meeting, the attorney general’s Legislative Director Hannibal Kemerer outlined efforts to fund legal representation in eviction cases. Frosh recently asked Hogan to provide roughly $135 million toward rental relief, and another $6 million toward legal representation for tenants in court.

Research has shown that, while a vast majority of landlords have representation in eviction filings, tenants rarely do. Frosh previously said he has yet to receive a response from Hogan on whether more federal funding for rental relief is available.

State officials’ request for additional federal funding relief was previously shot down by FEMA, this publication previously reported, and Congress is locked in a bitter stalemate over how much money to provide for rental relief in the next round of COVID-19 aid.

Although local governments in Maryland have warned that they won’t be able to make a meaningful difference to renters without additional state and federal assistance, many have opted to set up their own programs as they await more funding.

Montgomery County officials on Wednesday launched $20 million in CARES Act funding for rental relief in the county. The first phase of the county’s rental relief program, which included roughly $1 million in funding, was quickly overwhelmed by applications when it launched earlier this year.

In order to get up to $4,000 in rent arrears, tenants need to certify they earn less than 60% of the average median income, or $65,529 for a family of three; that they lost income due to the pandemic; that they are behind on rent and that they’ve lived in Montgomery County since February.

Rental programs and requirements vary by jurisdiction: Baltimore City’s Board of Estimates approved a roughly $30 million eviction program last week. That program is set to launch in late September, and is available to tenants who have a household income of 50% or less of the average median income.

On Wednesday, Hogan opened applications for $16 million in additional grants to support rental assistance programs in Maryland’s 24 jurisdictions. Applications for the Maryland Eviction Prevention Partnership are due Oct. 2.

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