Fears and uncertainties abound for Md. tenants, landlords and courts as eviction moratorium ends

This article was republished with permission from WTOP’s news partners at Maryland Matters. Sign up for Maryland Matters’ free email subscription today.

This content was republished with permission from WTOP’s news partners at Maryland Matters. Sign up for Maryland Matters’ free email subscription today.

Hundreds of thousands of Marylanders are at risk of being put on the street with their belongings, after a federal moratorium on evictions expires Friday.

Amid a continuing pandemic, neither those renters nor Maryland’s courts are fully equipped for what could follow.

Roughly 292,000 households are unable to pay rent and at risk of eviction in Maryland, according to recent estimates from Stout, a Chicago-based consulting firm. That could send about 192,000 eviction filings into Maryland courts over the next four months, Stout estimated.

The federal stay on evictions applies to rental housing backed by federally financed loans.

But the state’s courts are not ready for the influx of eviction filings that could come at the end of it, said Matt Hill, an attorney with the Public Justice Center, a nonprofit legal aid center that advocates for and represents low-income clients in civil cases.

The state’s District Court has indicated that it will begin processing warrants of restitution for failure to repay rent cases after July 25, but won’t be hearing failure to pay rent cases until Aug. 31.

“I don’t understand how, with adequate social distancing measures and safety measures, Maryland courts could possibly be equipped to handle this,” Hill said. “There’s been no guidance from the judiciary on when and how remote proceedings will be conducted. We have a lot of concerns around due process.”

Hill expects the state will see a dramatic increase in “tenant holding over” cases in the next month. That action can occur when a tenant remains on a leased property after a lease expires, or if a landlord wants to repossess the leased premises, although landlords have to give notice of this action.

“The procedure for this is the same as in a Breach of Lease action,” reads an explanation of tenant holding over actions by the landlord-tenant attorney firm of Edward J. Maher. “The only difference is that no lease violation need be proven in court to obtain the eviction order.”

Hill said some of his clients have already received notices to vacate from their landlords.

When court hearings do begin again, Hill expects to see vast disparities in legal representation between tenants and landlords. A separate study conducted by Stout this year found that, about 96% of landlords have legal representation during eviction cases, only 1% of renters do.

“It’s a very unequal playing field,” Hill said.

U.S. Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) urged lawmakers to extend the federal moratorium on evictions during a news conference this week.

“This is a potential catastrophe,” said Schumer, the Senate minority leader.

Some Marylanders will be protected from eviction through a stay issued by Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R), although tenant advocates have said the governor’s executive order has loopholes. Hogan’s moratorium requires tenants to prove their financial hardship was caused by COVID-19 in order to avoid eviction.

Fair housing advocates and lawmakers have asked Hogan to extend his moratorium, which is set to remain in effect as long as Maryland’s state of emergency remains. And while the state has dedicated some $30 million in federal funding toward rent relief, advocates for both landlords and tenants have called on Hogan to provide an additional $150 million.

Counties across Maryland set up rental assistance programs in the early days of the pandemic, but many quickly received more applications than they could fund.

Given the disparities in representation, Hill doesn’t expect every case will go to court. He said some people at risk of losing their housing might opt to let their lease expire or vacate when ordered to do so, only to avoid the court process.

The coronavirus pandemic has cost thousands of Marylanders their income, and also has had a disastrous impact on some landlords. Time reported that small landlords across the country have lost income as renters fell behind because of layoffs and shutdowns during the pandemic.

Eviction filings can haunt renters for years, said Carol Ott, tenant advocacy director for the Fair Housing Action Center of Maryland.

“If I’m a tenant and I have multiple evictions filed against me, or maybe even one, and I go to apply for housing at the next place I want to live, that eviction filing is still there,” Ott said. “That can mean the difference between getting an apartment and not getting an apartment.”

Ott said the drawn-out process of an eviction can be traumatizing for renters, who might not know when they’ll lose their housing.

“You’re at the point where every knock at the door, you just assume that it’s your landlord or the sheriff coming to say, ‘hey, it’s time to go,’” Ott said.

Ott said the pandemic is exacerbating problems, including the lack of affordable housing, that existed long before COVID-19 was discovered. She said courts were overwhelmed before the pandemic, particularly by larger management companies that have systems in place to automatically file evictions.

She said losing housing in the midst of an unprecedented health crisis is particularly damaging. Research has shown a strong connection between poor housing conditions and poor health, and Ott said the effects of homelessness extend well beyond those who lose their housing.

“Even in the best-case scenario, this is something that we are all going to share in the cost of,” Ott said.

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