Anne Arundel County steps up legal aid for tenants facing eviction

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As advocates warn that tenants will still need to head to court to avoid eviction under a new federal moratorium, officials in Anne Arundel County are beefing up efforts to provide renters with legal representation.

The county is shelling out roughly $190,000 to several housing advocacy and legal representation groups, County Executive Steuart Pittman (D) announced at a Thursday morning press conference. Pittman slammed state and federal authorities for providing aid to wealthy corporations instead of low-income residents across the country.

“Rather than investing in the foundation of our economy, the people who do the work, we have invested in the people who own the stock with subsidies, tax cuts and, even in this pandemic, billions of dollars in aid,” Pittman said.

The county is using a mix of local funding and federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act money to fund the $190,000 in legal services for tenants. That includes:

  • $65,000 in CARES funding to bring on longtime housing attorney Lisa Sarro, who will help oversee the county’s eviction prevention efforts. Sarro will serve as general counsel to Arundel Community Development Services, a county-run nonprofit that runs affordable housing programs.
  • $43,000 in CARES funding to contract with Community Legal Services to provide same-day legal representation for clients facing eviction. The nonprofit legal service currently provides civil representation to low-income residents of Prince George’s County.
  • $35,000 of county funding for the Fair Housing Action Center of Maryland, to expand the center’s already-existing tenant intake line. The nonprofit tenant rights group provides renters with information about the eviction process and refers them to legal assistance and eviction prevention programs.
  • $50,000 in county funding to contract with Maryland Legal Aid, which will provide legal assistance for “very low income” county residents.

Tenants are currently protected from eviction under a Centers for Disease Control order, which bars landlords from evicting renters who meet certain requirements. That order went into effect on Sept. 4, and is set to expire at the end of the year.

But Sarro warned that the CDC order doesn’t bar landlords from filing cases, and said many tenants will still need to head to court to avoid eviction. She said it’s largely up to state courts to interpret the order, and it isn’t clear how Maryland’s court system will apply the restrictions on evictions.

Some 274,000 households in Maryland have lost income due to the coronavirus pandemic, and may be at risk of eviction, according to estimates from the Chicago-based consulting firm Stout.

“There is no money attached to the CDC moratorium, so it just really postpones what might be the inevitable,” Sarro said. “What we’re hoping to during these next three months is locate those folks who we can help with rental assistance, and hopefully prevent their eviction Jan. 1.”

Pittman’s announcement came days after the Maryland Legal Services Corporation, the state’s largest funder of civil legal aid, said it is facing “significant” cuts to its grants as revenues plunge. The MLSC’s grantees include Community Legal Services and Maryland Legal Aid.

Anne Arundel County previously set up a roughly $4.6 million eviction prevention program using a mix of CARES Act funding and county funding. That program paid out assistance directly to landlords on behalf of tenants.

“We don’t see the landlords as the bad guys in this,” Pittman said. “We see them as part of our system that provides affordable housing to our residents.”

Pittman said county officials are looking to continue CARES Act-funded programs, like the county’s eviction program, even once that money runs out. He noted that it’ll likely put a strain on the county’s budget, but emphasized the importance of keeping a roof over residents’ heads.

“We’re going to be able to continue some of those programs,” Pittman said. “It’s going to make next year’s budget tougher, but we’re committed to it and we have to do it.”

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