Local Leaders Support Effort to Create “Just Cause” Laws to Protect Tenants
Fair housing advocates, local leaders and Democratic gubernatorial candidates urged state lawmakers Tuesday to pass “just cause” legislation that would allow local governments to require landlords to cite a qualifying circumstance when they chose not to renew a tenant’s lease.
Del. Jheanelle K. Wilkins (D-Montgomery) told the House Environment and Transportation Committee that she introduced House Bill 881 because landlords in Maryland don’t need to provide any reason for non-renewal.
“Currently, with just 60 days’ notice, a landlord can displace a resident at the end of their lease for absolutely no reason, and renters have no path to keep a roof over their head,” Wilkins said. “At a time when rents are skyrocketing, a lease non-renewal can really put a family in a very difficult place in terms of finding an affordable place to live that suits their needs.”
Wilkins’ bill includes several examples of what could constitute a “just cause” for not renewing a lease, although local governments would have flexibility to craft their own legislation. Examples of just causes under Wilkins’ bill are:
- A tenant “committing a substantial breach of lease” or causing damage to a leased property and refusing to pay for the damages or correct the breach of lease within “a reasonable period of time established under local law or ordinance.”
- A tenant continuing to disturb the “peace and quiet” of other tenants even after receiving notice from a landlord
- A tenant engaging in illegal activity on the property
- A tenant refusing “without reasonable cause” to allow a landlord onto a leased premises to make repairs or inspect the property
- When a landlord, “in good faith,” wants to take possession of the leased premises for their own use or for use by their spouse, child, parent or grandparent
- If a landlord wants to take the rental off the market for a period of time
- And if a landlord wants to make repairs or renovations that can’t be completed while a leased premises is occupied.
Wilkins’ bill received support from local leaders of some of Maryland’s largest jurisdictions Tuesday: Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich (D), Prince George’s County Councilmember Jolene Ivey (D), Montgomery County Councilmember William O. Jawando (D), Baltimore City Council President Nick J. Mosby (D), and Howard County Councilmember Liz Walsh (D) all testified in favor of the enabling legislation.
“A resident who is not being a positive member of their community should expect for the rental management company to prove that they do have just cause to exclude them from their community,” Ivey said.
Jawando testified on his own behalf but said the entire Montgomery County Council supports the legislation. He noted that tenant holding over cases, which occur when a tenant remains on a premises after the lease expires, increased during the pandemic. Those cases weren’t covered under federal and state eviction protections for tenants that expired last year.
“People need to be stable in their homes for safety, for health, for wellness and to achieve their full potential,” Jawando said.
Mosby noted that Baltimore passed its own “just cause” eviction law last year, although The Baltimore Sun reported that Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott (D) said, at the time, there were “doubts about the City’s authority to implement and enforce this bill’s provisions locally due to the significant state law governing this subject.”
Two Democratic gubernatorial candidates also appeared to support the legislation: John B. King Jr., a former U.S. Secretary of Education, and Tom Perez, a former U.S. Secretary of Labor. Both King and Perez said the bill would improve housing insecurity and in turn boost education and reduce inequality.
Tenants also testified in favor of the legislation: Lindsay Bouie, a Gaithersburg resident, said she lives in an apartment with a month-to-month lease with her partner and their children.
“Our family needs to know that our home cannot be taken away from us at any time for any reason that is not revealed,” Bouie said. “We are good neighbors who pay our rent, who deserve to live our lives free of anxiety that our son or one of his friends will have to change elementary schools, not by choice, but for no good reason.”
Natalie Branch, a staff attorney with Maryland Legal Aid, said tenants are largely left without a legal defense in tenant holding over cases under current state law.
“I’ve advised or represented nearly 50 families facing this type of situation, and only three of those families had any legal defense,” Branch said. “It doesn’t matter if they had never missed a rent payment or broken any rules at all.”
Erin Bradley, the vice president of Maryland government affairs for the Apartment and Office Building Association, a group that lobbies for landlords, argued that just cause eviction laws would require landlords to continue a lease unless they “can prove to the court one of a limited number of reasons to let a lease expire.”
If other residents were intimidated by someone and refused to give testimony about their behavior, Bradley argued, the landlord would be left without evidence and would have to renew that individual’s lease.
Wilkins sponsored efforts in previous legislative sessions to allow Montgomery County to enact just cause protections for tenants, but those bills were unsuccessful.