Tenant Relief Efforts Fail on Sine Die

    A proposal to provide low-income tenants access to legal representation in eviction cases received final approval from the General Assembly Monday – but a separate bill that would have provided funding for tenants’ counsel fell victim to the clock on the final day of session.

    If enacted, House Bill 18, sponsored by Del. Wanika T. Fisher (D-Prince George’s County), will require the Maryland Legal Services Corporation (MLSC), the state’s largest funder of civil legal aid, to help connect tenants with legal counsel in eviction cases.

    But the bill relied on House Bill 31, sponsored by Del. Luke H. Clippinger (D-Baltimore City), which would’ve raised court filing fees and summary ejectment surcharge fees for landlords, to provide the MLSC with funding for that legal representation. Both of those proposals passed the House in March, but were held in the Senate as lawmakers debated policing and immigration reform.

    Clippinger’s filing fee bill, which would’ve raised Maryland’s summary ejectment surcharge fee from $8 to $50, was approved in the Senate on Monday – but the House did not concur with the Senate’s proposed amendments before the General Assembly adjourned at midnight. Republicans in the House, who had taken issue with several proposed tenant relief proposals throughout the session, drew out debate on a proposed well safety program as the last minutes of session ticked off the clock.

    His bill also would have increased the maximum surcharge for civil cases filed in circuit courts from $55 to $85. And it would’ve increased filing fees for cases other than summary ejectments in the state’s district courts from $18 to $28.  Before it passed the Senate on Monday, it inspired heated debate with Democrats arguing the fee increase would prevent “serial filings” of evictions, and Republicans charging that the fees would be passed along to tenants.

    And after a motion by Sen. Nancy J. King (D-Montgomery) to limit debate on the bill’s second reading Monday, discussion of the fee increase turned into an intense argument over Senate rules. Although the bill passed third reading and headed back to the House, there its time ran out.

    On Lawyer’s Mall after the House adjourned, Clippinger said he was “disappointed” that the bill failed, but added that under HB 18, some important provisions could still go in effect. Landlords could have to provide advance notice of an eviction filing and could be required to give tenants information about how to obtain legal counsel.

    A study of eviction cases in Baltimore by the Chicago-based consulting firm Stout last year found that tenants with legal representation are more likely to avoid eviction. That study also found that tenants overwhelmingly lack counsel in eviction cases: while 96% of landlords had legal representation during studied eviction cases in Baltimore, just 1% of tenants did.

    The fee increase wasn’t the only tenant relief measure that failed in the 2021 session. Del. Jheanelle K. Wilkins’ House Bill 1312, which would’ve codified and expanded protections for tenants during the COVID-19 pandemic and future catastrophic health emergencies, wasn’t advanced by the Senate. That proposal also passed the House in March, albeit with heavy cuts from the Judiciary Committee.

    “The Senate failed Maryland families tonight,” Wilkins (D-Montgomery) told Maryland Matters.

    Separate estimates from Stout show that between 109,000 and 204,000 renter households in Maryland are currently at risk of eviction. In a late night Tweet, the tenant advocacy group Renters United Maryland slammed legislators for the bill’s failure.

    Those renter households could still see relief in the coming months: The state is set to get millions from the federal government in rent relief funding as part of the American Rescue Plan, a trillion-dollar stimulus package passed by Congress earlier this year. Landlords and tenants alike have called for additional direct rent relief funding throughout the pandemic.

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    Bennett Leckrone
    Leckrone is a December 2019 graduate of the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University. He has interned at The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Columbus Dispatch, PennLive.com, The Dayton Daily News and The Troy Daily News. Leckrone is a Report for America corps member.