After N.Y. Special Session On Evictions, Some Wonder If Maryland Should Do The Same

The Maryland State House dome is lit up on the final day of the 2021 General Assembly session. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

After the U.S. Supreme Court blocked a Biden administration moratorium on evictions, lawmakers in New York convened a special session last week and extended the state’s eviction protections through Jan. 15.

Now, some advocates and local leaders are hoping the Maryland General Assembly will do the same.

Maryland’s eviction protections ended in August, and with federal rental assistance money slow to get to tenants and landlords, some worry that relief funding isn’t moving fast enough to prevent an onslaught of evictions.

There are multiple ways eviction protections could be instituted in Maryland. Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) could reinstate eviction protections; Congress could put eviction protections in place; and the General Assembly could theoretically convene a special session to pass eviction protections.

Local leaders and fair housing advocates had already called on Hogan to institute a full moratorium on evictions while the state’s jurisdictions stood up rent relief programs, but no such order was implemented.

So far Hogan has opted not to institute a new moratorium or eviction protections, and instead has urged local officials to speed rent relief disbursement.

“I just can’t emphasize enough how important it is for you to try to get this relief out to the people that need it most as quickly as possible,” Hogan told local officials at the Maryland Association of Counties summer conference last month.

Hogan’s office did not respond specifically to a request for comment on whether the governor plans to extend recently expired state eviction protections.

The U.S. Supreme Court has said that any future nationwide eviction stays need to come from Congress. Several members of Maryland’s congressional delegation have indicated they would support such a measure, but whether or not bills to extend nationwide eviction protections will be considered remains to be seen.

More than 60 congressional House Democrats called on Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) to extend national eviction protections, according to Politico, although White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki warned that such an action may be unlikely.

“If there were enough votes to pass an eviction moratorium in Congress it would have happened,” Psaki said. “It hasn’t happened.”

Matthew Losak, the executive director of the Montgomery County Renters Alliance, warned of a “disaster” if new eviction protections aren’t put in place. According to the National Equity Atlas, there are roughly 117,000 households behind on rent in Maryland. An estimated 75% of people behind on rent in Maryland are people of color, according to the data; 80% have an annual income of less than $50,000; and 58% are unemployed.

“I’ve learned long ago that one cannot be certain in predicting political outcomes,” Losak said. “I understand the odds are not necessarily favorable for moving this policy consideration along, but what’s the alternative?”

Losak said an order from Hogan would be the most immediate and effective way to extend eviction protections. He said tenants can’t afford to wait until December or January for help.

“In terms of emergency immediate action, it’s the governor who needs to act,” rather than wait for the General Assembly to consider numerous proposals, Losak said.

Greenbelt Mayor Colin Byrd (D) said he thinks any extension of eviction protections is most likely to happen at the state level, and urged lawmakers to convene a special session.

“That’s where it seems like the odds are best,” Byrd said, “but that’s no excuse for Congress to not even try.”

Byrd has been a vocal proponent of a special session throughout the pandemic, and last December called on House Democratic Caucus Chair Jazz M. Lewis (D-Prince George’s) to resign from his leadership position over the lack of a special session in 2020.

“We cannot have one branch that disappears for nine months in a global pandemic,” Byrd said. “I get it, it’s a part-time legislature. But there is this thing called a special session that should be used in special circumstances, and there is perhaps no circumstance in American history quite as special as a global pandemic that is leading to a mass-eviction crisis.”

Byrd also is challenging U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) for his senate seat.

Byrd’s frustrations over the lack of action on evictions are compounded by the fact that, this year, Maryland lawmakers came close, but failed, to pass more extensive eviction protections that would’ve lasted for months after the state’s health emergency expired.

Unlike Maryland, New York is considered a full-time legislature although it does not meet year-round. New York adjourned their regular legislative session in June, and were called back for a special session to address evictions. The Maryland General Assembly typically only meets for 90 days, although sessions can be extended.

In Maryland, only the governor can call a special session. But if a majority in the House of Delegates and the Senate petition for one, the governor must call one. Legislative leaders now are mulling whether to call for a special session in December to handle congressional redistricting.

Like the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s order, struck down by the Supreme Court, Maryland’s eviction protections allowed tenants to use a substantial pandemic-related loss of income as a defense in court to temporarily avert a failure-to-pay-rent eviction. The state and federal orders didn’t apply to other types of eviction cases, such as tenant-holding-over, which can occur when a tenant remains on a property after their lease expires.

“We have a smattering of state legislators who have indicated they don’t support the eviction moratorium expiring … but we have not seen any effort being exerted on the part of those legislators, let alone General Assembly leadership, to actually make that happen,” Byrd said.

Byrd isn’t alone in calling for a special session: Public Justice Center Attorney Zafar Shah said, shortly after the Supreme Court struck the CDC protection Aug. 26, that a special session would be “warranted.” Baltimore Renters United and Renters United Maryland said action needed to be taken and noted that the General Assembly could call a special session to stop evictions.

A spokesperson for House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) did not return a request for comment.

Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) said in a statement that he is “focused on getting money to Marylanders most in need as fast as possible so that our families can stay in their homes.”

The state received $401 million as part of the Emergency Rental Assistance Program, or ERA1, according to the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development. And $100 million of that rental assistance was either paid or in the process of being paid by the end of July.

Rent relief has been slow to get to tenants, but distribution has moved faster in recent months. Sara Luell, DHCD’s director of public information, said more rental assistance was disbursed in July than in the previous three months combined. And the state is expected to receive $352 million in the second phase of the Emergency Rental Assistance Program, or ERA2.

Federal red tape makes getting money out to tenants and landlords difficult, local leaders and advocates have said.

Byrd said he thinks counties are responsible for some of the slow flow of rent relief, but added that Congress “to some extent tied their hands” with stringent requirements and cumbersome applications.

“You can’t put cinder blocks on the backs of tenants and landlords and say, ‘get the money out fast,’” Byrd said. “Treating tenants as though they’re engaging in rental assistance fraud is just as bad as these voter suppression laws we see popping up around the country that treat every voter as though they’re engaging in voter fraud.”

Groups that advocate for landlords have argued that eviction protections aren’t necessary, since courts are backed up and it can take some time between an eviction case being filed and actually going to court.

Losak said relying on slow-moving courts isn’t a viable option for preventing evictions because some tenants  “self-evict” before heading to court. And housing instability could lead to increased virus spread amid the delta variant surge, he said.

“The courts will get to their docket, and it will have consequences for renters that are disastrous,” he said.

At a meeting Thursday of the Joint Committee on Ending Homelessness, Leah Tulin, special assistant to Attorney General Brian E. Frosh (D), told lawmakers that the number of Maryland households behind on rent in has been decreasing in recent months, but is still high.

“We’re going in the right direction, but there are over 100,000 Maryland households that are behind on rent,” Tulin said.

Tulin also said the state shouldn’t rely on court backlogs to avert evictions. She added that low court filing fees had created a “serial eviction filing problem” in Maryland even before the pandemic.

Frosh pushed for an increase in summary ejectment surcharges and other court filing fees, but legislation that would’ve raised those fees to fund a new access-to-counsel initiative for tenants failed to pass before the end of the 2021 legislative session.

Tulin said evictions never stopped entirely during the pandemic, and filings have been increasing throughout 2021.

“I think what we can expect is that these numbers are going to start to climb back up,” she said.

At the joint committee meeting Shah outlined several policy recommendations for lawmakers, including collecting more detailed rental and eviction data and creating a diversion program to avert eviction.

Del. Geraldine Valentino-Smith (D-Prince George’s County), co-chair of the Joint Committee on Ending Homelessness, said she plans for the committee to work with the attorney general’s office to create recommendations to stop a surge of evictions.

To learn more about how to apply for rent relief, click here.

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