After tenant relief efforts failed to pass in the Maryland General Assembly, a broad coalition of fair housing advocates, faith organizations and community groups are urging Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) to put a temporary halt on evictions in the state.
In an April 23 letter to Hogan, the Community Development Network of Maryland-led coalition warned that the $400 million in federal rent relief and current state and federal eviction orders won’t be enough to prevent a surge of evictions in the coming months.
Because courts only recently resumed hearing failure to pay rent cases, the letter reads, courts are quickly working through a massive backlog of eviction cases.
The dozens of groups who co-signed the letter worry that hearings for many of those cases will happen before local governments get a chance to stand up eviction prevention programs, and want Hogan to issue a targeted 90-120 day moratorium on failure to pay rent and tenant holding over eviction hearings.
“Right now in many counties across the state, thousands of people are suddenly simultaneously facing eviction and courts are using ‘rocket dockets’ to work through case backlogs,” the letter and an accompanying petition read. While the state and federal eviction moratoriums currently in place are well-intentioned, they are not stopping many of these evictions because they are not all encompassing and require renters to attend court hearings and provide documentation of income loss.”
According to estimates from the Chicago-based consulting firm Stout, between 109,000 and 204,000 renter households and Maryland could currently be at risk of eviction.
Claudia Wilson Randall, executive director of the Community Development Network of Maryland, told Maryland Matters that low-income tenants are more likely to fall behind on their rent – and face more barriers in showing up to court to defend themselves against eviction. The current state and federal orders allow for an affirmative defense against eviction, but only when a tenant can’t pay rent due to COVID-19.
A Stout study of eviction cases in Baltimore last year found that tenants with legal representation are more likely to avoid eviction. The study also found that just 1% of tenants had counsel in eviction cases compared to 96% of landlords.
“As long as it’s seen as an affirmative defense, that’s going to be a barrier,” Wilson Randall said.
The attempt to get Hogan to halt evictions comes after several tenant relief efforts failed to pass before the end of Maryland’s 2021 legislative session. Lawmakers didn’t move House Bill 1312, sponsored by Del. Jheanelle K. Wilkins, before midnight on the last day of session. That bill would’ve codified and expanded current protections for tenants during this and future catastrophic health emergencies, and included tenant-holding-over cases.
And although legislators approved House Bill 18 from Del. Wanika T. Fisher (D-Prince George’s), which aims to provide tenants better access to counsel in eviction cases, a separate measure that would’ve raised court filing fees and summary ejectment surcharge fees to help pay for that counsel failed to pass.
Those proposals all received approval from the House in March, but were held up in the Senate as lawmakers debated policing and immigration reform. Wilkins told Maryland Matters after the session ended that the Senate “failed Maryland families” by not moving forward with rental relief.
Zafar Shah, an attorney with the Public Justice Center, said he’d like to see Hogan bar landlords from evicting tenants soon after receiving rent subsidies, but added the governor could also issue an order granting local governments that authority. He said there’s currently a disconnect between the judiciary and rental assistance efforts, putting the burden on tenants to find rent relief and raise an eviction defense.
Shah said many of the backlogged eviction cases are being dismissed – but he said that doesn’t necessarily mean tenants are keeping their housing. He thinks that many tenants are self-evicting rather than heading to court to fight an eviction.
“Tenants are not showing up by and large,” he said.
Even after the rental relief arrives, Shah worries that some tenants might still lose their homes. Maryland lawmakers were previously warned that some tenants are being evicted even after receiving rental subsidies: Lisa Sarro, general counsel for Arundel Community Development Services, told lawmakers in March that her organization paid a landlord thousands in arrears last December, but the landlord filed a tenant-holding-over action just days later.
HB 1312 would’ve barred landlords from evicting tenants for at least 120 days after receiving rental assistance.
“We still don’t have a systemic way to connect what’s happening in front of judges to what’s happening in each of the local rental assistance programs,” Shah said.