Senate workgroup recommends increased rental assistance, legal services, other eviction prevention efforts

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Photo by Kevin Galens, via Flickr.

A state legislative workgroup is recommending that Maryland increase funding for rental assistance, provide legal services to tenants and small landlords in eviction cases, and take other actions to prevent tenants from being kicked out of their homes during the coronavirus pandemic.

The workgroup, made up of members from the Maryland Senate Judiciary Proceedings Committee, today released a report with their findings and recommendations to prevent evictions.

Staying at home when possible is a crucial part of reducing the spread of coronavirus, but housing loss or instability jeopardizes that goal, the workgroup wrote in its report.

“To treat, prevent, or reduce the spread of COVID-19 caused by the transmission of the novel coronavirus, it is necessary and reasonable to require or encourage individuals to remain in isolation or quarantine at their homes,” they wrote. “Housing security remains vital in Maryland’s fight against COVID-19.”

The workgroup, which met virtually six times from May through July, included state Sens. Shelly Hettleman (D-Baltimore County), Robert Cassilly (R-Harford County), Charles E. Sydnor III (D-Baltimore County), Jeff Waldstreicher (D-Montgomery County), Chris West (R-Baltimore County), and committee staff member Heather M. Marchione.

The group gathered input from tenants, landlords, advocates, legal community members, legislators, and representatives from banks and credit unions, which they used as the basis for their findings and recommendations.

In its report, the workgroup highlighted how COVID-19 has led to job loss, income loss or reduction, and inability to pay for rent and other services.

In December, before the pandemic, Maryland had a 3 percent unemployment rate. By May, Maryland’s unemployment rate reached 9.7 percent, the workgroup wrote in its report.

Between May 2019 and May 2020, a survey by the Maryland Multi-Housing Association found that rent collections decreased by 9 percent and the rate of delinquent rent increased by 31.68 percent, according to the workgroup.

The group also noted that the number of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program applications has increased by more than 400 percent statewide.

For months now, Marylanders have been calling for rent relief and other resources to prevent evictions.

Most recently, tenants and advocates marched to the governor’s mansion in Annapolis on Friday, ahead of the eviction moratorium’s expiration, to demand protections against evictions.

Gov. Larry Hogan in March issued executive orders prohibiting landlords from evicting tenants who are unable to pay their rent due to COVID-19, and stopping utility companies from charging late fees or shutting off residents’ services for non-payment during the state of emergency.

In June, the Court of Appeals of Maryland directed the state to resume processing eviction filings after July 25, when Hogan’s moratorium expired.

Hogan’s order regarding utility shutoffs will expire Aug. 1.

The workgroup put forth multiple recommendations that drew dissenting opinions from its two Republican members.

One recommendation was that Maryland extend the moratoria on evictions and utility shutoffs.

But Cassilly and West opposed the idea of continuing to prohibit evictions and utility shutoffs once COVID-19 data show that the health crisis has eased. Both legislators worried that doing so would pass on tenants’ financial difficulties to private business organizations without relief for landlords as well.

Consulting firm Stout conducted a study of Baltimore City tenants, which showed that providing legal services could potentially save the state more than $18 million in the city alone as tenants would not have to rely on social service programs due to being displaced from their homes, the workgroup wrote.

The workgroup recommended that the state create a pilot program to provide legal services for tenants and small landlords in eviction cases, and expand that program to all landlord-tenant cases if it is successful.

Attorney General Brian Frosh recently created the Access to Justice COVID-19 Task Force, which will advocate for equitable practices in the civil legal justice system with a focus on housing and landlord-tenant issues, the group noted.

In the meantime, members recommended the state recruit and train advocates to help tenants with housing counseling, access to services and legal proceedings. The workgroup advised that this program could be modeled after domestic violence advocate programs.

But Cassilly said that the legal services were unnecessary and that Maryland could not afford the costs associated with providing them.

The workgroup also advised limiting access to public records for cases in which tenants failed to pay their rent due to loss of income during the pandemic.

“[E]ven if a tenant successfully raises a substantial loss of income defense, the case record will remain viewable to the general public and may negatively impact the tenant’s ability to obtain adequate housing in the future,” they wrote. “The workgroup finds 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.”

Again, Cassilly and West opposed this recommendation, saying that it deviates from Maryland’s current policy for ensuring that case records are publicly available except for “special and compelling reasons.”

The report did not note any members’ opposition for remaining recommendations, including funds for a “robust and transparent” rental assistance program.

In June, Hogan committed $30 million in federal funding through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act to prevent renters from getting evicted.

That money included $20 million for local governments and $10 million for a housing relief assistance program.

But advocates from the ACLU of Maryland, the Homeless Persons Representation Project, and the Public Justice Center said the state needs to put a minimum of about $153 million in federal relief funds toward rental assistance for Marylanders.

The workgroup said it supported the allocation of that $30 million for rent relief, but they added that both the amount of funding and the information about how the money will be distributed are “insufficient.”

The senators also recommended for Maryland’s courts to expand mediation services to help landlords and tenants to agree on payment plans, and create and staff a housing court with trained mediators and judges.

Doing so, they said, will help mitigate the courts being overwhelmed with failure to pay rent eviction cases after Aug. 31, when Maryland courts resume those hearings.

Members recommended that Maryland’s Congressional explore federal legislation to protect tenants from the pandemic negatively impacting their credit report.

The federal government could give states more flexibility to protect tenants from negative reports under the Fair Credit Reporting Act.

“Poor consumer reports may perpetuate a cycle of unstable housing during a national health emergency for many Marylanders. Although evictions do not appear on consumer reports, the related collection accounts or debts do,” the workgroup wrote.

The workgroup also advised the Department of Housing and Community Development to monitor mortgage issues, extend mortgage protections, ensure lenders attempt loss mitigation efforts before foreclosure and promote housing counseling programs.

Marcus Dieterle

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