Months after the Centers for Disease Control issued a nationwide halt on certain evictions, advocates and lawyers say the order isn’t helping all Maryland tenants.
Interpretation of the CDC order can vary from judge to judge, said Matt Hill, an attorney with the Public Justice Center. Hill, who represents tenants in eviction cases, said he’s seen a rise in landlords simply terminating or not-renewing leases instead of going through the normal failure-to-pay rent eviction cases.
“It’s not being applied consistently to all types of eviction actions,” Hill said of the order.
And even though Maryland courts have issued their own halt to failure-to-pay rent cases through the end of the year, tenants are still being evicted, Hill said.
Many of Hill’s clients have short-term leases, so a landlord can simply opt to not renew a lease and then file what’s called a “tenant holding over” action. Tenant holding over cases happen when a tenant stays on a property after their lease ends.
Landlords can also file a notice of non-renewal to tenants before their lease ends, and generally have to do so between 30 and 60 days before the end of a lease. Those tenant holding over cases are still being filed, just as Hill anticipated months ago.
Tenants who want to use the CDC order to shield themselves need to fit into narrow requirements in order to avoid eviction: They need to prove under oath that they tried to obtain any available government rental assistance, can’t pay their full rent due to “substantial loss of household income, loss of compensable hours of work or wages, a lay-off, or extraordinary out-of-pocket medical expenses” and would be made homeless or forced into a congregate living space if evicted.
Additionally, tenants who earn more than $99,000 in annual income in 2020, or $198,000 if filing a joint tax return, don’t qualify for eviction protection under the CDC order. Individuals who weren’t required to report any income in 2019 to the U.S. Internal Revenue Service, or received a CARES Act stimulus check, qualify for the moratorium’s protections.
And the protections provided by the limited moratorium are close to ending: the order is set to end on Dec. 31. It’s unclear whether the CDC will extend the moratorium, although Congressional leaders are reportedly resuming negotiations on a new COVID-19 relief bill that could potentially include a more thorough moratorium.
Assistant Attorney General Karen Straughn told tenants during an early September town hall that the nationwide order is “not helpful to a lot of people in Maryland” because of it’s somewhat narrow scope.
Carol Ott, tenant advocacy director for the Fair Housing Action Center of Maryland, called the CDC order a “mixed bag” since judges have mostly applied it to failure-to-pay rent cases, noting that people are still being evicted for breach of lease and tenant holding over.
Ott said she’s seen a massive surge in moderate income clients who might not fall under the CDC order’s protections, many of whom have never had to navigate the eviction process before.
She’s also seen a disproportionately high number of Black tenants seeking help: Of the 379 households that have reached out to the Fair Housing Action Center for eviction prevention help since March 20, 75% are Black.
Ott said that, without more government money going toward eviction prevention and rental relief, the United States will likely see an unprecedented housing crisis. She said the prospect of families homeless during the dead of winter at the height of the pandemic is “frightening.”
“I try not to think about it,” Ott said. “I try to think about each client individually.”
State officials allocated $30 million in federal relief funding toward eviction prevention and rental relief in the early days of the pandemic, but advocates have warned that it’ll take more than three times that amount to make a meaningful difference to Maryland tenants. Officials, on the other hand, have said their hands are tied until the federal government provides more money.
Local governments have also set up their own rental relief programs to varying degrees of success. Montgomery County officials used federal funds to bolster homelessness and eviction prevention programs in their area, and Baltimore City officials established new grant programs to prevent evictions.
Ott slammed government officials for prioritizing business relief over rental assistance in recent months. Maryland Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot (D) has repeatedly called for the state’s $585 million rainy day fund to go to small businesses hurt by the pandemic.
Ott said she understands that small businesses are struggling, but emphasized the dire situation many households would be in if they lose their housing. She said it’s a matter of life or death for tenants at risk of eviction.
“People are going to die,” she said. “They’re not just going to die from COVID. They’re going to die from exposure, they’re going to die from hypothermia, they’re going to die because they have a pre-existing medical condition that’s exacerbated by living in their car.”
According to recent estimates from the Chicago-based consulting firm Stout, between 194,000 and 244,000 households in Maryland are currently at risk of eviction, and their combined rent shortfall is more than $300 million.
When the CDC moratorium is lifted on Jan. 1, 2021, Stout estimates that there could potentially be more than 90,000 eviction filings in the state.