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Fair Housing Advocates Urge Lawmakers to Allow Local Just-Cause Eviction Laws

House keys sitting on an eviction notice received in the mail.
Getty Images.

Lindsay Bouie, who lives in Gaithersburg with her partner and their two children, has a month-to-month lease. And although she and her partner always pay their rent on time, Bouie said she worries that their landlord could decide to not renew their lease, leaving them with 60 days to find a new place to live.

“We are all in constant threat of being told to leave our homes with just 60 days notice,” Bouie said at a Tuesday press conference. “As month-to-month renters, that leaves us wondering each month: Will such a notice arrive on our door?”

Letting local governments require landlords to provide a reason when they choose not to renew a tenant’s lease is a top priority for Renters United Maryland, a fair housing coalition that is asking state lawmakers to allow local governments to enact “just cause” eviction laws in their jurisdictions.

At a Tuesday press conference, Del. Jheanelle K. Wilkins (D-Montgomery) said she will introduce such legislation. Current Maryland law doesn’t require landlords to cite a reason when not renewing a lease.

Wilkins’ said her bill would allow local governments flexibility in crafting their own just-cause legislation. Examples of “just cause” evictions could be when a tenant is breaking provisions of a lease or is disturbing other residents.

Wilkins said Tuesday that Baltimore City and Montgomery and Prince George’s counties have expressed interest in enacting just cause eviction laws.

“It’s time to permit our local jurisdictions to move forward,” Wilkins said.

Boosting eviction prevention efforts in courts

Advocates from Renters United Maryland also want lawmakers to fund the access-to-counsel initiative that passed the General Assembly last year and to make legal aid and prevention programs more accessible to people facing eviction. Legislation that would’ve raised court filing fees and summary ejectment surcharges to pay for access to counsel failed to pass last year.

Sen. Shelly L. Hettleman (D-Baltimore County) is sponsoring legislation that would require the governor to send “the maximum amount of any federal rental assistance money that may be used for legal representation” toward the state’s access-to-counsel fund.

Hettleman said Tuesday that tenants face “an uneven playing field” and often lack representation in rent court.

“We have received nearly $800 million over the past year and a half or so from the federal government and some of that funding can be used for counsel,” Hettleman said.

Advocates for landlords want to see the access-to-counsel program funded via federal funding or the state budget rather than through raised court fees.

Adam Skolnik, executive director of the Maryland Multi-Housing Association, said in a statement that his association is “adamantly opposed to financial penalties being placed upon housing providers for accessing the impartial judicial system, which would only lead to more evictions and negatively impact residents.”

Attorney General Brian E. Frosh (D) is supporting legislation to increase the state’s summary ejectment surcharge, a fee landlords must pay to start an eviction proceeding. Leah Tulin, special assistant to Frosh, told lawmakers at a September meeting that low court fees had led to a “serial eviction filing problem” in Maryland.

Hettleman and Del. Vaughn M. Stewart (D-Montgomery) are sponsoring legislation that would stay an eviction proceeding if a tenant can prove they’ve applied for rental assistance. Although state and local governments in Maryland have millions in federal rental assistance money, that funding has at times been slow in getting to tenants and landlords.

Lisa Sarro, who oversees eviction prevention efforts for Arundel Community Development Services, a non-profit corporation that runs affordable housing programs in Anne Arundel County, said counties currently prioritize applications from tenants who are facing eviction, leading to lengthy wait times for other applicants.

“If everyone had … just a reasonable waiting period before their tenants could be evicted, we could process much more quickly and more fairly amongst the applicants who are waiting for assistance,” Sarro said.

District Court of Maryland Chief Judge John P. Morrissey told lawmakers at a January briefing that failure-to-pay-rent filing numbers are lower compared to pre-pandemic levels due to court backlogs and federal rental assistance funding.

Skolnik said court backlogs amount to more than 10 months in some jurisdictions and argued that there is “ample time to provide rental assistance to residents.”

Currently court operations are scaled back due to the highly contagious omicron variant.

Morrissey has said that failure-to-pay-rent cases can still be filed, but he doesn’t expect those cases to move forward until at least March 7. But other types of eviction cases and eviction cases that were in the pipeline before operations were scaled back are moving forward.

Tenant advocates also want lawmakers to pass a bill sponsored by Del. Melisa R. Wells (D-Baltimore City) and Sen. Susan C. Lee (D-Montgomery) that would require judges to grant a recess or continuance in eviction cases for either party to seek legal representation or eviction prevention services.

Cracking down on unlicensed landlords filing for eviction 

Renters United Maryland also wants lawmakers to require landlords to show proof that they have a rental license, where one is required, in order to evict tenants.

That legislative priority comes after the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled last year that a landlord in Baltimore could evict tenants via tenant-holding-over filings without having a rental license. In her dissenting opinion in that case, Court of Appeals Judge Shirley M. Watts said state lawmakers should review the case and look at codifying the issue, The Baltimore Sun reported.

“We’ve seen across the state that we have problems with landlords getting into court, not having to show that they are legally operating, and then winning judgments,” Zafar Shah, an attorney with the Public Justice Center, said.

Shah said that means unlicensed landlords currently have an “unfair incentive and competitive advantage” over landlords who are licensed.

House Bill 174, sponsored  by Del. Mary A. Lehman (D-Prince George’s) would require landlords to prove they are in compliance with local laws and state statutes when they file a failure to pay rent case. That legislation has support from the Maryland Multi-Housing Association, although that organization wants to see the timing changed from when the failure to pay rent case is filed to when it is heard in court.