By JEAN MARBELLA | BALTIMORE SUN | AUG 31, 2020 AT 9:59 PM
As Maryland courts resume hearing failure-to-pay-rent cases this week, Maryland Speaker of the House Adrienne A. Jones on Monday called for Gov. Larry Hogan to increase funding to help tenants at risk of being evicted.
”Throughout this pandemic, you have rightly told Maryland families that they are safer at home,” Jones wrote in a letter co-signed by 77 delegates. “But starting this week, thousands of our neighbors may be evicted from their homes, risking their safety and health and Maryland’s economic recovery efforts.” The letter said the $30 million Hogan previously committed toward helping renters through the coronavirus pandemic was “woefully inadequate.” Jones also referred to the end of the federal moratorium on evictions as well as the expiration of an extra $600 a week in unemployment benefits, both at the end of July, as putting many renters in dire straits.
“The recent reduction in federal unemployment benefits will push more renters to the brink of homelessness,” she said.
Jones also called for Hogan to fund lawyers to help tenants navigate the court system and to prohibit landlords in coronavirus-related cases from charging late fees or reporting nonpayment of rent to credit bureaus through the end of the year. Mike Ricci, a spokesman for Hogan, said Jones’ requests would be taken into consideration. He noted that Maryland was among the first states to implement its own moratorium on evictions, and that the Hogan administration sought, unsuccessfully, additional federal funding to expand assistance to prevent them. “We appreciate hearing from our legislators, and have shared their ideas with the Department of Housing and Community Development,” Ricci said.
Housing advocates, though, have said Hogan’s executive order, signed in March and effective as long as the state of emergency remains in place, does not outright ban evictions. It prohibits courts from ordering evictions if tenants can demonstrate their inability to pay rent was the result of the pandemic, such as losing their jobs or having to care for a school-age child.
Groups that work to prevent evictions and homelessness have been predicting that a wave of rent court filings in the coming days. On Monday, Maryland district courts resumed hearing failure-to-pay-rent cases as part of their gradual reopening process.
Adam Skolnik, who heads a group that represents rental owners and managers, said any assistance to prevent evictions would be “a good thing.”
But Jones’ call to prohibit late fees on delayed rent payments likely is already happening, said Skolnik, executive director of the Maryland Multi-Housing Association.
“We’ve been urging our members not to charge late fees during the pandemic,” he said. “Most have stopped.”
Skolnik said his members have benefited from rental assistance that went directly to landlords, as well as the stimulus and the extra $600 a week in unemployment benefits that helped some tenants keep up with their payments. Maryland expects to resume those payments, retroactively and at half the amount, in late September as part of a temporary, stopgap measure. Skolnik said September likely will bring an increase in rent delinquencies, although he doesn’t think it will be as massive as housing advocates have predicted.
Matt Hill, an attorney with the Public Justice Center, said he agrees with Jones that the state needs to commit more than $30 million to eviction prevention, because by one estimate, there are 274,000 Maryland tenants who have fallen behind on their rent.
Additionally, he said, it’s not clear how much of that committed money has been spent, or how.
“We have no transparency in how that has been allocated and how it’s being spent,” Hill said.
He said the General Assembly could also help tenants by meeting in special session to address their needs. ____ Jean Marbella Jean Marbella is a reporter on The Sun’s investigative and enterprise team. She joined The Sun in 1987 and has been a features writer, national correspondent, editor and columnist. She was born in Havre de Grace, grew up in Chicago and graduated from Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism.