Md. lawmakers unveil recommendations to avert housing evictions

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.

With an “onslaught” of eviction filings expected in the coming months, a group of Maryland lawmakers released recommendations Monday on how to avert a housing crisis.

Members of a Maryland Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee workgroup urged other lawmakers and state officials to take steps to keep an estimated 292,000 Marylanders from losing their homes.

A federal moratorium on evictions expired on Saturday, leaving thousands of tenants in the state at risk of losing their homes. While the Maryland judiciary won’t begin hearing failure to pay rent cases until late August, advocates say many tenants could face other types of eviction filings starting this week.

The bipartisan workgroup included Sens. Shelly L. Hettleman (D-Baltimore County), Robert G. Cassilly (R-Harford),  Charles E. Sydnor III (D-Baltimore County), Jeffrey D. Waldstreicher (D-Montgomery) and Christopher R. West (R-Baltimore County).

“Many Marylanders, especially Black and Brown communities, are struggling under this crisis,” Hettleman, who led the workgroup on housing, said in a statement. “Having a home in which to stay is an absolutely critical piece of ensuring families can remain safe as we all collectively fight COVID-19.”

The lawmakers’ 12 recommendations range from preventing late fees to guaranteeing legal representation for tenants: 

  • The state should be transparent in how it doles out rental assistance money, and make sure any relief funding goes to tenants who have been affected by the pandemic.

  • Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) should keep his moratorium on certain evictions and foreclosures in place. Hogan’s moratorium prevents evictions for Marylanders who can prove that their financial hardship was caused by COVID-19. Some advocates have said the governor’s moratorium has “significant loopholes.”

  • The governor should also keep his order enforcing social distancing in place.

  • Hogan should issue an executive order prohibiting landlords from charging late fees for residents who can’t pay rent due to coronavirus-related loss of income.

  • The Maryland judiciary should create a pilot program to guarantee tenants and small landlords the right to publicly supported legal services. A recent study of eviction cases in Baltimore found that, while some 96% of landlords have representation in court, only about 1% of tenants do.

  • If the legal services pilot program is a success, the legislators suggest that Maryland should expand it to all landlord-tenant cases.

  • The judiciary should expand its mediation services to encourage landlords and tenants to come up with payments plans instead of heading to eviction court.

  • The judiciary should consider creating a special (and possibly temporary) housing court. The legislators wrote that “an onslaught of new failure to pay rent eviction filings will occur” after the judiciary’s stay on those filings ends on Aug. 31.

  • The judiciary should look at limiting public access to some coronavirus-related failure to pay rent cases. The senators wrote that “there must be a balance between recognizing the public interest in maintaining access to public records and protecting against unjust barriers to housing for those who have sustained substantial loss of income due to COVID-19.”  Advocates have previously warned that eviction filings can haunt renters for years.

  • Maryland’s congressional delegation should look at altering the Fair Credit Reporting act to give states more leeway to protect tenants from negative consumer reports.

  • The Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development should extend certain forbearance protections, require lenders to try loss mitigation efforts in an attempt to avoid foreclosures and promote the state’s existing housing counseling programs.

Members of the workgroup cited racial disparities in evictions. A recent study found that the number of Black eviction removals in Baltimore is three times the number of white eviction. Female-headed households are also more likely to be evicted.

“The list is not exhaustive but implementing these policy changes would mitigate, and perhaps even eliminate, material risks in health and safety to some of the most vulnerable among us at this unprecedented time in our State’s history,” Hettleman and Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee Chairman William C. Smith Jr. (D-Montgomery) wrote in a letter to Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City).

The state is already taking steps to prevent evictions, including providing $30 million for rental relief and eviction prevention across the state. Officials rolled out applications for $10 million in relief funding for Marylanders living in state-financed rental units last Friday, but fair housing advocates say it will take more than that to prevent a flood of eviction filings in the coming months.

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