Two dozen tenant activists were stamping their feet in the cold the other day at People’s Park in downtown Annapolis. The weather was an annoyance, but it also illustrated a point: That apartment dwellers are being put out on the street every day in Maryland, and that struggling tenants need help — especially in winter.
Magdalena Escobar, a Greenbelt resident, said she had to quit her job as a restaurant cook a few years ago to care for her ailing son. Without renters’ assistance, which was arranged by the immigrants’ rights organization CASA, her family would not have been able to stay in their apartment, she recounted in Spanish.
“I remember my kids yelling for joy and I could see them change overnight as they learned they no longer had to worry about being evicted,” she said.
Others told stories about their fears of eviction during the 40-minute news conference and rally Wednesday. The activists were in Annapolis to call on state leaders to set aside $15 million next year for a fund that would help tenants who are one to three months behind on their rent. They also want the state to set up tenant protection programs in community schools.
That’s just part of the agenda for tenant advocates heading into the January General Assembly session. And it looks like the administration of Gov. Wes Moore (D) is prepared to pursue at least some of their priorities.
While Moore isn’t expected to unveil his housing agenda until after the new year, Jake Day, the Maryland secretary of Housing and Community Development, has been telling audiences over the last several weeks, and in a recent interview with Maryland Matters, that the administration is putting together a bold affordable housing agenda for the legislative session.
“We are hoping that we can make 2024 a surge year for policymaking and for investments in the housing space,” Day told the House Environment and Transportation Committee last week.
He said the state is facing an affordable housing shortage of at least 96,000 units — “and that’s a conservative estimate.”
“Without decisive action, that trend will not only persist but compound over the next 10 years,” Day said.
To Day and his lieutenants, and to many affordable housing activists, it’s a simple question of supply and demand. With construction costs and interest rates rising, especially since the pandemic, Maryland is the eighth least affordable state in the U.S. for housing costs.
More than half of Maryland renters are considered “housing cost burdened,” Day said, and many renters pay half of their salaries or more on housing.
Day said administration officials are mindful of the state’s long history of redlining and housing discrimination and their long and shameful legacy that continues to this day. One of every four Black children in the state live under the threat of eviction. And it’s easier to evict tenants in Maryland than just about anywhere else: Filing fees for landlords who are trying to remove tenants through court action are cheaper than in any other state.
“We have to protect vulnerable families who are in untenable housing situations,” Day said.
So what is the administration’s plan to address these challenges? While the full plan is still under wraps, Day said officials are determined to address the affordable housing shortage. It seems likely that the state will attempt to boost financing programs and remove regulatory hurdles to enable private developers and local governments to build more housing more easily.
Day and Maryland Planning Secretary Rebecca Flora both have said that state planners want to be more mindful of where job growth in the state is going to be over the next quarter century and anticipate the housing needs of the growing workforce, especially as the state also faces mandates to reduce carbon emissions and commute times.
Tenant advocacy groups say the state’s desire to build more affordable housing is laudable but may not be adequate.
“We appreciate the governor’s plans to increase the housing supply, but that is going to take a long time,” said Matt Hill, an attorney with the Public Justice Center, and a leader of the group Renters United Maryland. “We have renters who need assistance now.”
The tenant advocates say that a pause on evictions during the pandemic, coupled with an infusion of government funds to renter protection programs, had a major impact on tenant security and stability.
“Simply put, the funds we got during COVID, during the pandemic, worked,” said Taneeka Richardson, a policy analyst with the Maryland Center on Economic Policy, a liberal group.
‘The culture has always benefited the landlord community’
That’s why the advocates are calling for the creation of a state fund to help renters struggling with their monthly payments . The Maryland Center on Economic Policy released a report this week estimating that a $40 million annual allocation would stop the eviction of 15,000 families at the highest risk of displacement — and that the investment would yield approximately $92 million in cost savings or avoidance for government agencies by reducing homelessness and state-funded safety net costs related to shelter, educating students experiencing homelessness, health care, foster care, decreased incarceration, and the economic impacts of increased employment and income stability.
Hill said the state already has programs that could control and dole out the fund and he hopes that lawmakers will include an initial $15 million during their budget deliberations.
“My understanding is this is not in the governor’s [housing] package, but it’s not too late,” Hill said.
The tenant groups do have commitments from Sen. Shelly Hettleman (D-Baltimore County) and Del. Vaughn Stewart (D-Montgomery) to introduce the community schools measure they are seeking. And they are gearing again to support a measure, sponsored by Del. Jheanelle K. Wilkins (D-Montgomery), that would require landlords to provide “just cause” to justify their attempts to evict tenants.
It remains unclear whether the Moore administration will support this measure, which was introduced and ran aground in the past two legislative sessions.
At last week’s House hearing, leaders of the Maryland Multi-Housing Association, which represents apartment building owners, said they were generally supportive of the Moore administration’s upcoming attempts to create more affordable housing, but warned that landlords are already facing new financial pressures that could compel them to add costs to tenants’ bills.
Aaron Greenfield, the group’s director of government affairs, said landlords are facing a newly proposed state regulation, called Building Energy Performance Standards (BEPS). If adopted, it would require a 20% reduction in building greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and net-zero carbon emissions in buildings by 2040, which would require costly retrofits. A bill requiring upgrades to sprinkler systems in multi-unit housing developments also stands a good chance of passing, he said.
On top of that, Greenfield said, new rent control laws in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties are adding financial pressures to building owners.
“We all want affordable housing,” Greenfield said. “But it becomes very difficult when we have sprinkler retrofits and BEPS.”
That argument will no doubt have some resonance in the State House, where landlords have frequently held sway.
“The [political] culture has always benefited the landlord community,” said Matt Losak, executive director of the Montgomery County Renters Alliance.
But tenant advocates are hoping the new administration is ready to respond to what they see as a growing crisis.
“We are seeing the forced migration of low-income individuals and their families — and seniors,” Losak said, “and we don’t know where they’re going.”