Legislation that will provide low-income tenants access to legal representation in eviction cases became law without a signature from Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) over the weekend — but remains unfunded.
House Bill 18, sponsored by Del. Wanika T. Fisher (D-Prince George’s), establishes access to legal representation for low-income tenants through the Maryland Legal Services Corporation (MLSC), which is the state’s largest funder of civil legal aid. The bill was cross-filed as Senate Bill 154 by Sen. Shelly L. Hettleman (D-Baltimore County).
Key to the bill’s functionality is a single line on its twentieth page: “Access to legal representation under this subtitle is subject to the availability of funding.” The bill relied on separate legislation, House Bill 31, sponsored by Del. Luke H. Clippinger (D-Baltimore City), to increase court filing fees and summary ejectment surcharges for landlords to fund the MLSC’s access to counsel efforts.
Clippinger’s bill failed to pass before time expired on the final day of session, with Republicans in the House drawing out debate on a proposed well safety program as midnight approached.
With the new access to counsel rules unfunded as courts work through a backlog of eviction cases — and with many months before the General Assembly reconvenes — fair housing advocates and lawmakers are calling on Hogan to allocate funding for tenants’ access to counsel. In a Tuesday press release, Renters United Maryland urged the governor to use funding from the federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) to implement House Bill 18.
“By making access to counsel the law in Maryland, Governor Hogan and our legislative leaders have underscored the important role legal representation plays in reducing evictions,” Reena Shah, the executive director of the Maryland Access to Justice Commission, said in the release. “Hundreds of thousands of Marylanders are on the precipice of an eviction tsunami. We thank the Governor for his leadership and urge him to fund the legislation, so we can see the impact this legislation is capable of delivering.”
The Hogan administration did not immediately respond to the letter on Wednesday.
Lawmakers have likewise called on Hogan to fund HB 18: Senators and delegates urged Hogan to use federal rent relief funding to support the access to counsel bill in a May 27 letter.
“Maryland has an existing legal services infrastructure supported by the Maryland Legal Services Corporation (MLSC) that can quickly scale up in the next fiscal year to utilize additional federal funding,” the lawmakers wrote. “HB 18 provides for a stakeholder task force to guide MLSC in implementation of the access-to-counsel program, and its reporting requirements provide transparency and accountability as the program moves toward full implementation in the coming years.”
Lawmakers who signed the May 27 letter include Hettleman and Fisher, alongside Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City), Sen. Guy J. Guzzone (D-Howard County), Sen. William C. Smith Jr. (D-Montgomery), Sen. Jeffrey D. Waldstreicher (D-Montgomery), Sen. Christopher R. West (R-Baltimore County), Del. Erek L. Barron (D-Prince George’s), Del. Kathleen M. Dumais (D-Montgomery County), Del. Maggie L. McIntosh (D-Baltimore City) and Del. Samuel I. “Sandy” Rosenberg (D-Baltimore City).
Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh (D) called HB 18 a “powerful new tool to fend off the looming eviction crisis,” and likewise urged Hogan to use federal funding to supplement the access to counsel program.
Heading to court is essential to avert an eviction under Hogan’s current protections for tenants. His executive order, which is tied to the state of emergency, allows tenants to temporarily avoid certain types of evictions if they can prove a substantial loss of income tied to the COVID-19 pandemic. That executive order doesn’t cover all eviction filing types: Tenant-holding-over actions, which can occur when a tenant remains on a property after their lease expires, are not covered under those protections.
A study of eviction cases in Baltimore by the Chicago-based consulting firm Stout found that the vast majority of tenants don’t have legal representation in eviction cases. Stout found that 96% of landlords had representation during eviction cases in Baltimore, but just 1% of tenants did. Baltimore officials have since enacted legislation guaranteeing city residents a legal right to counsel in evictions.
Some 144,000 Maryland households are estimated to be currently behind on rent, according to the National Equity Atlas. Of those households, an estimated 82% are people of color. The National Equity Atlas rent debt data is drawn from the American Community Survey, U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey and California’s Center for Economic and Social Research’s “Understanding Coronavirus in America” panel survey.
The attorney general, the Maryland Legal Services Corporation, and the Maryland Access to Justice Commission want to gradually scale up the program to full implementation over several years, according to the release. That would mean a $5-7 million allocation for access to counsel for the 2022 fiscal year which would gradually scale up to full implementation of between $29-$31 million in the 2025 fiscal year.
Renters United Maryland says that funding would provide access to counsel to 34,000 households, and would save the state more than $90 million in the long run by reducing Medicaid and foster care costs. State and local governments are set to receive millions in targeted rent relief funding as part of the ARPA.
Sens. Benjamin L. Cardin (D) and Chris Van Hollen (D) have touted the ARPA as giving state and local governments more flexibility over how they spend its relief funding.
The calls on Hogan to fund the access to counsel legislation come as Hogan joined dozens of other Republican-led states in ending enhanced unemployment benefits. That will take effect on July 3, ending the $300 supplemental weekly payment that some unemployed Marylanders have been receiving under the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program.
Editor’s note: This story was updated to include information about a May 27 letter to Hogan from Maryland lawmakers.