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Working & the Economy

Fair Housing Advocates Urge Baltimore Officials to Stop Evictions Amid Omicron Surge

Baltimore City Hall. Photo from stock.adobe.com.

With hundreds of evictions scheduled in Baltimore this week as COVID-19 cases soar, advocates from the Baltimore Renters United coalition on Tuesday urged city officials to temporarily delay evictions.

There are 352 evictions scheduled to move forward in Baltimore between Jan. 3 and Jan. 7, according to Baltimore Renters United. At a virtual press conference Tuesday, advocates said allowing those evictions to move forward as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations surge due to the highly contagious omicron variant will exacerbate the pandemic.

“If tenants are evicted, they’re forced to live in close quarters in shelters, doubled up with family or friends, or on the streets,” Matt Hill, an attorney with the Public Justice Center, said. “You cannot quarantine or stay home if you have no home. The state has ample rental assistance available, and one eviction right now is one too many.”

Fair housing advocates want Baltimore Sheriff John Anderson, Mayor Brandon Scott (D) and District Administrative Court Judge Halee F. Weinstein to suspend evictions in the city. Anderson and Weinstein, alongside then-mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young (D), suspended evictions in March 2020.

In a statement, Scott said he doesn’t have the power to institute a complete eviction moratorium on his own and that action would need to come at the state level. Young asked Anderson, who has jurisdiction over evictions, to put a temporary stop to evictions in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I am deeply concerned about the impact that continued evictions will have on Baltimore residents,” Scott said in a statement. “However, this is a matter of State law that the City does not have the authority to address. With COVID-19 cases rising in Baltimore, I encourage the Governor to sincerely consider eviction relief or delegate power to local governments to make the best decision for our residents.”

While Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) declared a state of emergency for Maryland on Tuesday, he did not reinstate eviction protections for tenants that phased out after Maryland’s last state of emergency expired last year. Alongside the state protections, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention eviction protections also ended last year.

Courts recently scaled back their operations due to the omicron surge, but advocates said scheduled evictions are still proceeding.

“How can the court not be in session because of COVID but deem it okay to put families out of their houses, into shelters and other undesirable living situations?” Keisha, a tenant facing eviction, said at Tuesday’s virtual press conference.

According to the National Equity Atlas, which estimates rent debt nationwide based on U.S. Census and Treasury data, there are an estimated 111,000 tenant households in Maryland behind on rent. The National Equity Atlas estimates that 79% of tenants behind on rent in Maryland are people of color.

There is a slew of rental assistance funding available from several federal relief efforts, but that funding has at times been slow to get to tenants and landlords. Of the roughly $401 million state and local governments received in Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERA1) funding as part of the federal Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021, $178.1 million had been distributed by the end of October, according to the state Department of Housing and Community Development. Another $28.6 million of payments were in progress as of that last data update.

State and local jurisdictions will also receive $352 in rental assistance funding from the American Rescue Plan Act. Distribution data from that rental assistance funding will be posted once jurisdictions begin spending it, according to the Department of Housing and Community Development.

Baltimore had distributed $18.2 million of its $42.1 million ERA1 allocation by the end of October 2021, with another $5.3 million of payments in progress. While the state and local jurisdictions have picked up the pace in terms of distributing that funding since programs began last year, some advocates who spoke at the press conference said tenants are facing eviction even after receiving rental relief funding.

Public Justice Center Attorney Albert Turner, spoke on behalf of Joanne Williams. one of his clients who is facing an eviction this week. Turner said Williams worked at a nursing home before the COVID-19 pandemic, but was left with chronic vertigo after contracting COVID-19 in 2020, which eventually forced her to stop working and she fell behind on rent.

Williams was able to avoid a failure-to-pay rent eviction by invoking the now-expired Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tenant protections, Turner said, but her landlord filed a tenant holding over eviction case. Tenant holding over filings occur when a tenant remains on a property after their lease expires; those cases weren’t covered under the state and federal eviction protections that expired last year.

He said Williams successfully applied for rent relief, but is still facing eviction even after her landlord agreed to accept the rental assistance funding.

“The agreement clearly stated that the landlord had to dismiss all current evictions, including the tenant holding over judgment that he had gotten prior,” Turner said. “However, the landlord did not do this. The landlord, in fact, went in December and got a warrant and then went and scheduled an eviction for her. Ms. Williams is currently scheduled to be evicted this Thursday. The Public Justice Center has filed a motion with the court to stop the eviction. However, we haven’t received an answer right now.”

Del. Vaughn M. Stewart (D-Montgomery) said in an interview that he’s planning on introducing legislation that would delay an eviction when a tenant can prove they’ve applied for rental assistance.

“Right now we have a perverse situation in the state where tenants cannot afford to pay rent due to the pandemic or indirectly related to the pandemic,” Stewart said, “and they’re eligible for rental assistance, and they apply for rental assistance, but they’re evicted before they get their money.”

Tenants in Maryland have a “right to redeem,” meaning they can pay past due amounts and fees to stop an eviction. But Stewart said a “very small minority” of landlords are arguing that checks from government agencies aren’t explicitly listed as an acceptable form of payment and evictions can move forward despite the past-due rent being paid.

Stewart said he doubts that claim would hold up in court, but said he’s also planning legislation to add rental assistance checks from government agencies to the list of acceptable payments.

Advocates for landlords have repeatedly said that court delays related to the pandemic mean that government orders are unnecessary. Adam Skolnik, the executive director of the Maryland Multi-Housing Association, called court closures and delays a “de facto moratorium” and said members of his association are working with tenants to apply for rental assistance. But Skolnik argued that landlords have little recourse if tenants don’t communicate or apply for rental assistance.

Hill said in an interview, however, that the hundreds of evictions scheduled in Baltimore this week alone prove that relying on court delays isn’t sustainable.

“The state has ample rental assistance,” Hill said. “Some landlords are refusing rental assistance. That’s a major problem. Some landlords are refusing to wait on rental assistance. That’s a major problem.”

Tisha Guthrie, a member of the Baltimore Renters United steering committee, called housing a vital service and said officials need to take “willful and deliberate action” quickly to stop evictions in order to abate the spread of COVID-19.

“This virus is not waiting,” Guthrie said. “People’s health is not waiting.”