Maryland Joins States Providing Tenants Access to Counsel

When the COVID-19 pandemic prompted mass shutdowns and unemployment last spring, policymakers scrambled to keep constituents safe during the virus. One provision in the federal CARES Act established a nationwide, 120-day eviction moratorium for rental properties with federally backed mortgages. But as federal protections for renters lapsed later in the year, state and local jurisdictions also began implementing measures to keep renters housed during the pandemic.

Maryland joins a growing number of states with codified tenant protections, and will establish a program granting low-income tenants access to counsel in eviction proceedings under a bill that became law May 30. After Washington Gov. Jay Inslee signed off on a modified version of a similar bill in April, Maryland became the second state to enact a tenants’ counsel bill. On June 10, Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont signed the nation’s third statewide right to counsel bill after it was passed by his state’s General Assembly.

The Maryland bill’s sponsor, Del. Wanika Fisher (D-Prince George’s County), told U.S. News that she expects this program to especially benefit her constituents, many of whom are immigrants from Latin American, African and Caribbean communities, and may not be aware of their rights when facing eviction, she notes. “This access is irrespective of (immigration) status, so it doesn’t matter if you have a green card or are undocumented,” Fisher says.

She hopes the legislation will curtail some of “the abuse that goes on — the tenants get evicted, and the landlords never went and got a rental license from the county,” Fisher says. “It does help you (as a tenant) mitigate and figure out the type of legal recourse that might be available to you.”

The program launched by Maryland’s tenants’ counsel bill — HB18 — takes effect on Oct. 1, despite becoming law in May. A companion bill ( HB31) that would have secured funding for the program by raising the state’s court filing fees for summary ejections failed to clear a conference committee in both chambers of Maryland’s General Assembly before the Legislature adjourned on April 12.

In the interim, Fisher says the state intends to use federal housing assistance funds to provide tenants with an attorney when facing eviction proceedings.

“I think we needed Del. (Jheanelle) Wilkins’ bill,” she adds, referring to HB1312 — which would have codified a substantial loss of income during catastrophic health emergencies as a valid defense during eviction proceedings. While that bill, sponsored by Wilkins (D-Montgomery County) cleared Maryland’s House of Delegates in March, it failed to pass in the Senate before the General Assembly adjourned.

“When you have a homeless population during a pandemic, that’s affecting my health and my children’s health,” Fisher says. “Those people are still going to eat, and still be in your grocery store.”

Tenants and advocacy groups drew cover from an order by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to halt evictions until June 30 to slow the spread of COVID-19. But a federal judge in Washington, D.C., vacated the ban on May 5, claiming that the CDC does not have the authority to place a moratorium on eviction.

Maryland renters remain temporarily covered by an eviction moratorium issued by Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, which remains in effect through the end of the state’s declaration of a public health emergency. Those states of emergency have in turn been renewed every month since the start of the pandemic in March 2020, and most recently on June 12 this year.

Hogan announced on Tuesday that Maryland’s state of emergency will end July 1.

But “we don’t want to rely on the goodwill of landlords or the executive order, but make sure renters are protected by the law,” Wilkins told U.S. News. “Courts are opening up, and over 200,000 Maryland residents have reported being behind on their rent and are at risk of eviction.”

[MORE: How Evictions Harm Public Health]

Approximately 147,000 Maryland households were behind on rent as of May 10, according to the National Equity Atlas — a data explorer tool produced by the research firm PolicyLink and the University of Southern California’s Equity Research Institute.

“The housing issue is not going away,” Wilkins says. “If all goes well, perhaps we’ll have a new normal in the next few months or by the end of the year. But rent debts and housing records are not going away. Families spiral out of control.” She says one of her constituents is facing $22,000 in back rent — an amount that even with a rental assistance program in place in Montgomery County, the jurisdiction would not write a check for in full.

Maryland ranks eighth in the nation for the highest hourly wage required to rent a two-bedroom apartment — $28.06 — according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. Montgomery County is estimated to be even more prohibitive, requiring tenants to earn almost $33 per hour to afford a two-bedroom apartment.

While Wilkins applauds the state’s implementation of a program providing tenants access to counsel, “it shouldn’t be the primary means to keep people housed,” she says. And some landlords are circumventing eviction orders by not renewing their tenants’ leases to begin with: “‘I’m just not going to renew your lease'” is standard practice for many, Wilkins says.

Shavon Stewart, a tenant at an apartment complex owned by George L. Schnader Jr., Inc. in Baltimore, says she received a letter at the end of last year indicating her lease would not be renewed past February, despite having her income affected by the pandemic.

“My landlord wasn’t even picking up for me,” she says. “They wouldn’t pick up the phone. They knew COVID policy, and they knew my income was affected by COVID. I sent them a new notice from the CDC saying that your lease can’t be up until June 30.”

After attempts to negotiate with her landlord proved unsuccessful, Stewart says she reached out to the nonprofit Public Justice Center, which stepped in and advocated on her behalf with the property owner. Stewart’s landlord did not respond to requests for comment.

[READ: Stimulus Package Extends Eviction Ban, Offers Rental Assistance]

“As soon as they stepped in and got involved, everything changed,” Stewart says of the Public Justice Center’s involvement. “I felt like they were a blessing, because I thought I was about to have to pick up me and my children and move. I was devastated.”

As Stewart began working overtime and became current on rent in January, the legal advocacy group was able to renegotiate her lease. She says the Justice Center also discovered that Schnader Jr. Inc. had been charging Stewart late fees on her rent — in violation of Hogan’s executive order — and informed her that if she tried to take the landlord to court, the property owner would likely end up owing her remuneration for those fees.

Meanwhile, tenants who are noncitizens and have been excluded from federal stimulus packages often face mounting debts from back rent without assistance from the government, according to the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank.

Diana Hernandez-Tellez, a tenant at the Park Tanglewood apartments in Riverdale Park, Maryland, says the loss of her job at the start of the pandemic compounded with a series of family crises and prevented her from being able to pay rent.

“I was left without a job last March,” she told U.S. News in Spanish. “My mother and I applied for unemployment benefits, and I didn’t receive them, but she did. With that help, we were able to cover rent from March through October.”

But after Hernandez-Tellez’s uncle was hospitalized in a trucking accident in Mexico and her grandmother passed away in January, the combined medical and funerary expenses drained her household of funds for rent. Hernandez-Tellez says that in response to the accumulating back rent and substandard housing conditions, she and her neighbors organized a rent strike that has been in effect since last November.

“I hope that in my case, personally, if (the owners) take us to court, that the judge will analyze our case and note how we live in these apartments — sometimes with mice, cockroaches and ceilings that collapse,” Hernandez-Tellez says. “They’re charging us an amount (for rent) that isn’t fair, considering the maintenance we get.”

Hernandez-Tellez sees Maryland passing the tenants’ access to counsel bill as a positive step. But with the state’s low eviction court filing fee of $15 for all jurisdictions outside Baltimore, she says landlords could easily “dislodge 100 or 200 people. It’s good that they give us the access to defend ourselves, but with the quantity of people, I worry that it won’t amount to much.”

For now, Hernandez-Tellez says she and her neighbors are holding out hope for a compromise between the landlords and Prince George’s County, which also has a rental assistance program in place.

But if not, “We have to see where we’re going to come up with that money,” she says. And “(owners) should know that we’re living in conditions that we should not have to live in.”

Hernandez-Tellez’s property manager did not respond to requests for comment. Hogan’s office also did not respond to repeated requests for comment, but did note HB18 on a list of bills that the governor would allow to become law without his signature.

While several Democratic lawmakers and housing advocates touted the tenants’ counsel measure, Republicans in the General Assembly uniformly voted against the bill during its final votes in both the Maryland House and Senate.

“The vast majority of property owners are small mom and pop operations who provide a nice apartment or home for renters to call home,” Del. Kathy Szeliga (R-Baltimore and Harford counties) wrote in an email to U.S. News. “I am one of them.”

“As a landlord, spending 1/2 a day in court waiting for your case to be called is a tremendous waste of time,” she continued. “Especially when the tenant usually does not appear because they have not paid the rent and there is no other reason to oppose the filing.”

According to Szeliga, “Maryland already has a highly regulated rental property market.” She noted that landlords are required to be registered with state and local jurisdictions to have access to eviction courts. “Illegal landlords who have not filed or are not current with their filings and inspections do not have access to courts to evict renters,” Szeliga wrote.

According to Matt Hill, an attorney with the Public Justice Center, however, there is “no statewide licensing requirement” for landlords to have access to eviction court. “Most large jurisdictions have licensing requirements, but not all types of rentals are included. … So the bottom line is that a landlord in Maryland is required to be licensed in order to file most, but not all, eviction cases,” he wrote in an email to U.S. News.

Still, state Republicans remain wary of the measure. “This bill will do nothing more than increase the cost of rent for all the renters who pay their rent on time,” Szeliga wrote.

As of mid-June, tenants’ right to counsel bills are active in the legislatures of Massachusetts, New Jersey and Delaware, according to John Pollock, coordinator of the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel. He says that in many cases, these bills build on right to counsel programs that have been passed in New York and nine other major American cities.

More from U.S. News

A ‘Dangerous Moment’ as COVID Eviction Ban Nears Expiration

The 10 States With the Most Affordable Housing

Stimulus Package Extends Eviction Ban, Offers Rental Assistance

Maryland Joins States Providing Tenants Access to Counsel originally appeared on usnews.com

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