Tenants’ Advocates and Landlords Push for Rental Assistance at Senate Briefing

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Advocates for tenants and landlords alike told lawmakers Monday that the state needs to act quickly to dole out the $400 million in federal rental relief money coming to Maryland.

Getting assistance to renters needs to be the “number one priority” for the legislature, Aaron Greenfield, the director of government affairs for Maryland Multi-Housing Association, told members of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee during a Monday afternoon briefing.

Marylanders have a collective shortfall that could total nearly $380 million, said Zafar Shah, an attorney with the Public Justice Center. Shah said 30% of Maryland households earning less than $50,000 said they couldn’t pay the prior month’s rent as of an early December survey.

Shah said he expects the $402 million in expected rental relief money will help families, but warned that it may come too late for some tenants.

“If there’s anything that I’d like the committee to take away from what’s happening with rental assistance, it’s that it takes a long time for that money to devolve down to a meaningful way to help renters and their landlords,” Shah said.

Evictions continued in Maryland in 2020 despite state and federal moratoriums: Maryland District Court Chief Judge John P. Morrissey said there were about 2,571 evictions in Maryland between July and November of 2020.

Morrissey noted that eviction filings were down across the state in 2020 due to court closures and the orders from state and federal officials. The state averaged 55,000 eviction filings a month before the pandemic, whereas some months in 2020 saw less than 10,000 new filings.

Some months in 2020 also saw a higher-than-average number of “tenant-holding-over” actions, which can occur when a tenant remains on a property after a lease ends. Under recently proposed rental relief legislation, landlords couldn’t refuse to renew a lease based on “rent delinquency and lease expiration” during the pandemic.

Morrissey said that, before the pandemic, the majority of tenant-landlord cases were dismissed for a variety of reasons before tenants were actually evicted.

The briefing came a week after a group of lawmakers and advocates unveiled their plans to provide emergency rental relief and overhaul Maryland’s eviction process during the upcoming session.

The Housing Justice Package would codify state and federal orders on evictions and foreclosures, provide tenants with legal representation in court and increase fees for eviction filings in the state.

Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee Chairman William C. Smith Jr. (D-Montgomery County) is among the lawmakers who’ve  thrown their support behind the package. Proponents of the housing relief and reform effort argue that the state’s current protections won’t be enough for tenants and homeowners to weather the pandemic, and say the state should make lasting changes to improve housing security after the pandemic.

“Eviction is not simply a condition of poverty,” Attorney General Brian E. Frosh (D) said when the package was unveiled last week. “It’s a root cause. It perpetuates a cycle that can last for generations.”

Sen. Robert G. Cassilly (R-Harford County) pushed back on some of the measures in the Housing Justice Package during Monday’s briefing, arguing that raising court filing fees would only serve to hurt small landlords. He noted that no small landlords spoke during the meeting.

“The system we’ve got, where we encourage landlords to go into court promptly, is not a bad thing,” Cassilly said.

Some said codifying forbearance protections for homeowners wasn’t necessary, since orders from federal officials and Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) already provide protections that will likely outlast the state of emergency.

D. Robert Enten, the general counsel for the Maryland Bankers Association, said codifying those emergency orders might create problems after the legislative session ends.

“What would worry me would be to codify these things, and then whenever you guys go home and you don’t come back for six or nine months and the situation changes, we’re stuck,” Enten said. “I don’t think there’s any evidence that the situation isn’t being adequately dealt with.”

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