Housing Advocates Urge Baltimore to Use Relief Funds for Tenants’ Access to Counsel in Eviction Cases

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Baltimore became one of only a few local governments in the country to guarantee tenants the legal right to counsel in eviction cases last year. Now, fair housing advocates say city officials should use funds from the federal American Rescue Plan Act to pay for that right to counsel.

While the right to counsel legislation was approved in late 2020, it hasn’t been fully funded and is slated to be implemented over the next four years. Advocates from the Baltimore Renters United coalition previously estimated that implementing the right to counsel in eviction cases will cost the city roughly $6.8 million, but could be offset by state or federal funding and would save the city money in the long run by preventing homelessness.

Now, fair housing advocacy groups including Jews United For Justice and the Public Justice Center say Baltimore Mayor Brandon M. Scott (D) should dedicate at least 20% of the city’s $641 million from the American Rescue Plan Act to prevent evictions — including $12 million to fund the right to counsel program.

A study of eviction cases in Baltimore by the Chicago-based consulting firm Stout found that 96% of landlords have legal representation during eviction cases in Baltimore, and just 1% of tenants do. Stout found that tenants with legal representation are more likely to avoid “disruptive displacement.”

Detrese Dowridge, the president of the Right to Housing Alliance and a member of the Baltimore Renters United steering committee, said tenants need legal counsel in eviction cases sooner rather than later.

Dowridge said funding the right to counsel for tenants will create an “even playing field” in court. She said tenants face barriers to showing up to fight an eviction case when they don’t have access to reliable transportation or childcare. And they may struggle to raise a defense, like proving a landlord didn’t make necessary repairs, without legal counsel.

“If they do attend [hearings], I feel like the odds are stacked against them,” Dowridge said.

State and local governments received millions in rent relief funding from various federal stimulus packages throughout the pandemic, but Dowridge said that money alone won’t be enough to prevent evictions. That money has, at times, been slow to get to tenants and landlords, but the pace has picked up in recent months, particularly among local jurisdictions, like Baltimore, that received direct federal rent relief funding.

There are an estimated 111,000 households behind on rent in Maryland, totaling an estimated $367.9 million in rent debt, according to the National Equity Atlas. Roughly 79% of tenants behind on rent in Maryland are people of color, according to the estimates from the National Equity Atlas, and 78% have an annual income of less than $50,000. Federal and state eviction protections that allowed tenants an affirmative defense in certain types of eviction cases, including failure to pay rent, ended in August.

Dowridge said fully funding the right to counsel for tenants will disincentivize landlords from filing for eviction as a means of collecting past-due rent.

“It kind of forces them to try to work something out with the tenant before they even file, especially if it’s an issue where the tenant can get the money but it’s just not on time,” Dowridge said.

Matt Hill, an attorney with the Public Justice Center, said some of his clients have received rental assistance but are still facing eviction.

“Rental assistance is critical,” Hill said. “It’s important. We can’t live without it. But we also have to have some means for tenants to enforce their rights to live in safe, fair, habitable housing.”

Lawmakers passed a statewide access-to-counsel program to provide low-income tenants with legal representation through the Maryland Legal Services Corporation (MLSC), the state’s largest funder of civil legal aid. But that legislation is “subject to availability of funding,” according to the bill, and separate legislation that would’ve increased court filing fees and summary ejectment surcharges for landlords to fund the MLSC’s access to counsel efforts failed to pass during the 2021 legislative session.

Hill noted that the Access to Counsel in Evictions Task Force, established by the bill passed earlier this year, sent a letter to Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) last week recommending that the state use federal stimulus money to fund the access-to-counsel program.

“While eviction filings have not returned to pre-pandemic levels, we are hopeful that the availability of rental assistance, other changes to state and local laws, and the availability of legal counsel will reduce eviction filings so that they do not again approach the more than 650,000 per year mark that was seen in pre-pandemic levels,” Vicki Schultz, the chair of the Access to Counsel in Evictions Task Force, wrote to Hogan.

Scott set up the Mayor’s Office of Recovery Plans earlier this year to administer ARPA funding. Baltimore will need to commit all ARPA funds by Dec. 31, 2024, according to the city’s website. The city is also collecting public feedback online for how to use the funds.

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