House Panel Moves Relief for Tenants – With Sweeping Cuts

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The Maryland House Judiciary Committee advanced a heavily cut-back relief proposal for tenants Tuesday night, drawing criticism from housing rights advocates who say the trimmed-down legislation doesn’t help enough.

As originally proposed, Del. Jheanelle K. Wilkins’ (D-Montgomery) sweeping tenant relief effort would have established a rent relief fund, put more roadblocks on the eviction process and protected tenants from being evicted under “tenant-holding-over” actions, which can occur when a tenant remains on a property after a lease ends.

As the committee moved it to the House, the bill would essentially 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 robust eviction data tracking across the state. That means tenants will need to head to court and prove a substantial loss of income due to a catastrophic health emergency.

The proposal also 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.

Committee members also passed a provision that would give judges more leeway to grant emergency stays for evictions that would endanger a tenant’s health. House Bill 52, introduced by Del. Melissa Wells (D-Baltimore City), would allow judges to make broader decisions over how long to grant a temporary stay of an eviction. Now, judges are able to issue temporary eviction stays for no more than 15 days.

Wells’ bill originally would have created eviction diversion programs in counties with high eviction numbers, but the committee removed those provisions after pushback from judiciary officials, House Judiciary Chairman Luke H. Clippinger (D-Baltimore City) said.

House Judiciary Chairman Luke H. Clippinger (D-Baltimore City). Photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

Advocates for tenants slammed lawmakers for slashing many of each bill’s provisions Tuesday, with Public Justice Center Attorney Zafar Shah saying that lawmakers effectively “gutted” the bill.

“This bill is simply allowing for a Governor Hogan-style affirmative defense, which requires tenants to come to court during an emergency to prove that they’ve had a substantial income loss, and that the income loss is related to the emergency,” Shah said. “We fail to see how this is substantively different from what we’ve seen happen since last March.”

Advocates have long warned that tenant-holding-over actions have been skyrocketing during the pandemic, since affirmative defenses offered by current eviction moratoriums mostly focus on failure-to-pay rent filings. Shah said Maryland courts at times saw nearly double the amount of tenant-hold-over cases in 2020 compared to 2019.

Matthew Losak, executive director of the Montgomery County Renters Alliance, said the amended legislation will “leave tenants vulnerable to unjust eviction” and put them at further risk during the pandemic.

“The only thing that is moderately worthwhile is some level of eviction data collection,” Losak said. “But if that’s all they pass, all they’re doing is agreeing to tell us what we already know.”

Clippinger acknowledged that the significant cuts to both of the bills likely won’t be “100% perfect” in the eyes of either advocates for tenants or landlords. But he said other proposed legislation contains provisions that would address some of those concerns. For instance, House Bill 104, introduced by Del. Vaughn Stewart (D-Montgomery County) would require landlords to notify tenants about lease non-renewals earlier than the one-month notice currently required by most counties.

Advocates for landlords intensely criticized some original components of Wilkins’ bill (HB1312), which would’ve placed a slew of restrictions on when landlords can evict until April 30, 2022. Adam Skolnik, executive director of the Maryland Multihousing Association, previously told Maryland Matters the proposal, as introduced, was “fundamentally silly.”

Despite cuts, the proposal still met strong opposition from some of the panel’s Republican members, who worried it put too many restrictions on landlords. Del. Daniel L. Cox (R-Frederick) charged that such measures would be unconstitutional.

And Del. Lauren C. Arikan (R-Baltimore and Harford counties) pledged not to buy more rental units in the state if Wells’ proposal (HB 52) is enacted.

For Shah, the move to give judges more power is all the more reason for the legislature to guarantee the right to counsel for tenants in eviction cases and to move forward with eviction filing fee increases that Attorney General Brian E. Frosh (D) has proposed.

“It appears that the speaker and committee chairs are putting their weight behind rights to counsel and the fight now is to make sure that that right to counsel covers all eviction, and not just some,” Shah said.

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