After House Cuts, Advocates Hope Senate Will Retain Broader Relief for Tenants

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After a House panel advanced a rental relief proposal with significant restrictions Tuesday night, fair housing advocates turned to the state Senate in a bid to get more robust protections for tenants.

Senate Bill 910, as introduced by Sen. William C. Smith Jr. (D-Montgomery) and cross-filed as House Bill 1312 by Del. Jheanelle K. Wilkins (D-Montgomery), would offer sweeping relief for tenants by setting up a rental assistance fund and giving renters broader eviction protections. It would also set up “just cause” eviction requirements and additional affirmative defenses for tenants in eviction cases, and enact more requirements for landlords before they file an eviction, according to a Department of Legislative Services analysis of the bill.

The House version of the bill was drastically scaled back by the Judiciary Committee on Tuesday night, leaving only measures that would codify Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr.’s (R) executive orders on evictions for the current pandemic and future catastrophic health emergencies, and allow for more timely eviction data tracking across the state.

As moved by the House, the proposal would allow tenants to continue using income losses resulting from a health emergency as an eviction defense for three to six months after the emergency ends, depending on how long the official health emergency lasts. The Senate version of the bill has yet to be scaled back.

At a Wednesday Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee meeting, Smith warned of a potential “avalanche” of evictions once current orders on evictions are lifted. He noted that Maryland courts are currently in the process of reopening, and could soon begin hearing failure-to-pay rent cases again.

“Despite the protections, and despite the moratorium, evictions have actually continued,” Smith said.

Public Justice Center Attorney Zafar Shah repeated his warning to lawmakers that current emergency protections for tenants don’t go far enough. He said more than 2,500 evictions went forward in Maryland last fall, and many more are awaiting courts to reopen to move forward.

Shah said current protections are a “patchwork of limited protections” for tenants, and warned that “tenant-holding-over cases” – which can occur when a tenant remains on a property after their lease expires – have skyrocketed since the pandemic began. As originally proposed, the legislation would enact a litany of restrictions on what constitutes just cause for an eviction until April 30, 2022.

“We have to do more than what the executive branch has done,” Shah said.

Shah previously told Maryland Matters that current executive orders offer tenants affirmative defenses in failure-to-pay rent cases, but don’t affect other types of filings like tenant-holding-over. He said Maryland courts at times saw nearly double the amount of tenant-hold-over cases in 2020 compared to 2019.

Shah told committee members that housing is a fundamental “tool of public health,” and that SB 910 is the legislature’s best bet to ensure Maryland tenants don’t lose their homes during the pandemic or the ensuing economic recovery.

Karla Martinez, a 16-year-old Prince George’s County resident, told committee members that her mother lost work due to the pandemic, and that her family has been threatened with eviction repeatedly over the past year.

“My family depends on your decision,” Martinez said. “My sisters and I are only kids. We need to focus on school. Instead, we worry every day about being evicted.”

D. Robert Enten, a lobbyist for the Maryland Multi Housing Association, pushed back on the bill’s hefty proposals for tenant relief, and noted the House cuts to the proposal. He said legislators should focus on getting the millions in federal rent relief to tenants and landlords rather than putting additional restrictions on landlords.

Tenants and landlords alike have sometimes been united in calling for more rental relief funding throughout the pandemic, and the latest federal relief package includes billions to prevent evictions across the country.

“The last thing a landlord wants to do is to evict a tenant in any circumstance,” Enten said.

Legislators need to make sure that money used for rental relief actually keeps tenants in their home, said Lisa Sarro, the general counsel for Arundel Community Development Services. She said her organization paid a landlord thousands in arrears last December – but she later learned that the landlord filed a tenant-holding-over action just days later.

“If landlords are able to evict despite payments of the arrears that are owed, that doesn’t do what the funding is there for,” Sarro said.

Katherine Howard, representing the property management company Regional Management Inc., emphasized that landlords have also been hard-hit by the pandemic. She said Regional Management has a very low vacancy rate, but a high rent delinquency rate.

She urged the Senate panel to take a similar approach to the House and remove some of the proposal’s restrictions on when a landlord can evict a tenant, particularly the provisions about tenant-holding-over actions.

“Tenant holdovers are not just situations where somebody has failed to pay and the landlord decides to end the lease,” Howard said. “A landlord decides to end a lease for many different reasons. Sometimes that has absolutely nothing to do with payment.”

Smith himself acknowledged the House changes, and said he plans to “work with everyone” in moving forward with the proposal. The measure is one of several housing reforms efforts before legislators this session: Other proposals would guarantee tenants the right to counsel in eviction cases, and increase eviction filing fees in an effort to curb evictions.

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