Eviction prevention efforts in Baltimore lag

The line outside the doors of the Bon Secours Community Works center in West Baltimore forms at 8 a.m.

The office won't be open for another 90 minutes, but each month tenants facing eviction arrive early with the paperwork they need to prove they qualify for a $700 grant that could help them avoid getting kicked out of their homes.

On a recent morning, Lester Moody caught a ride from his apartment near Morgan State University, hoping to be among the fortunate 20 selected. Moody said he missed April's rent at his Marble Hall Gardens apartment because a surgery last year drained his savings.

After 11 years in his apartment, Moody was fearful of what would happen if he doesn't catch up.

"They seize your property, they change your locks," said Moody, 59. "They want their money or they'll evict you.

"That's kinda cold, but that's how the business works."

In Baltimore, the eviction business has been booming. The court issues some 70,000 eviction notices each year. About 7,500 tenants were turned out of their homes last year.

The rest either found a way to pay and stay, moved to new homes, checked into hotels, crashed with friends and family, or braved shelters or the streets. With their belongings packed into storage units, car trunks or friends' basements, tenants scramble every day to find help to get by for another month.

Such help is growing more difficult to locate.

Helping people stay in their homes saves taxpayers money in the long run, research shows. Other cities have been expanding their efforts. But government resources to prevent evictions in Baltimore are dwindling.

The number of eviction prevention grants awarded by the city — money to pay overdue rent — declined from 1,185 in fiscal year 2011 to 324 in fiscal year 2014, the most recent years for which figures are recorded in city budgets.

Subsequent budgets showed targets of 500 grants in fiscal years 2015 and 2016, but city officials said they were unable to say how many grants were awarded in those years or the current fiscal year.

Since fiscal year 2013 the city's budget has stated that about "5,000 households" face eviction each year. The actual annual average since then has been nearly 7,000 evictions.

The amount of eviction prevention money awarded to seven nonprofits by the Mayor's Office of Human Services declined 10.8 percent from $745,080 in fiscal year 2014 to $663,519 in fiscal year 2015. Nearly all of that money comes from state and federal governments.

Again, city officials said they were not able to detail how much money was spent or allocated in fiscal years 2016 and 2017. They also could not explain how the city spent $745,080 on just 324 grants in fiscal year 2014, an average award of nearly $2,200, or three times the typical $700 grant.

For the fiscal year that begins July 1, officials said, Mayor Catherine E. Pugh is set to budget $806,524 to assist 1,900 households.

What money has been available goes quickly.

"It's difficult for us to refer people who call us for eviction prevention services, because there is rarely available funding," said Robert Strupp, executive director of Baltimore Neighborhoods Inc.

HealthCare Access Maryland ran through its $170,000 grant for eviction prevention and rapid rehousing last year in five weeks. The nonprofit agency was able to prevent 45 evictions and relocate 54 clients before running out of money.

"After funds are expended, we ... attempt to direct people to other available resources, which are few and far between," said M. Dudley Greer, who directs behavioral health outreach at HCAM.

"There is such limited money for eviction prevention," agreed HCAM President Traci Kodeck. "It's just been a systemic issue in Baltimore City, a lack of affordable housing. There's a huge wait for subsidized housing."

Additional funding would help the city avoid the costs it absorbs when families are evicted.

"Evictions have a ripple effect into everything," Strupp said. "It's enormous. Evictions cause overcrowding, cause vacant and blighted properties, they cause kids not to be in school."

The Coalition for the Homeless in New York City, which helps tenants fight evictions in New York's housing court, has estimated that keeping a family in their home saves taxpayers $38,000 per year in shelter costs.

The group says that helping 660 families avoid eviction last year in New York saved approximately $14 million in shelter costs.

The District of Columbia helps qualifying families that are facing eviction pay up to five months of overdue rent, up to $4,250. That can increase to $6,000 for households with seven or more children, or if someone has a disability.

Research shows that providing lawyers to represent tenants in housing court is one of the most effective ways to prevent evictions.

New York City has been expanding funding to provide attorneys to tenants to nearly $100 million. A financial advisory firm estimated in an independent analysis that the effort will save New York nearly $250 million that would have been spent sheltering and serving evicted families.

As representation of tenants has increased, evictions have declined.

The District of Columbia and Massachusetts are considering legislation to expand funding for lawyers to represent low-income tenants. In January, Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh unveiled an "anti-displacement" legislative agenda that would declare legal representation for tenants in eviction proceedings a "right, rather than an option."

In Maryland, the panel of landlords, tenant advocates, judges and public officials that studied rent court reforms last year supported the American Bar Association resolutions urging state government "to provide legal counsel as a matter of right at public expense to low-income persons" in civil proceedings where "basic human needs are at stake."

The office of Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh said "providing tenants with legal representation in Court would greatly assist tenants."

Baltimore Mayor Catherine E. Pugh told The Baltimore Sun said she was studying the issue. She said she supported efforts by the Maryland Judiciary to provide in-court assistance to help tenants and landlords better understand the process and to provide volunteer, free legal help.

Baltimore officials have acknowledged for years that the city's eviction prevention efforts have lacked coordination — and funding.

The Housing Authority of Baltimore City reported to the federal government last year that the city has "one of the highest eviction rates in the country." It then recommended that eviction prevention funding "be streamlined through one funding mechanism and that program standards are developed to ensure that eviction prevention programs operate consistently throughout the city."

That's not the current setup.

After receiving a failure to pay rent ruling court at the District Courthouse on Fayette Street, tenants are encouraged to go to Room 207 — the eviction prevention room, where they can fill out forms and walk away with a 12-page printout listing contacts for eviction prevention grants.

Advocates for tenants describe the printout as a confusing treasure map with outdated phone numbers and addresses.

A committee of landlords, advocates for tenants and government officials that recently studied reforms to rent court recommended better reporting of how much money is available money and accurate contact information for nonprofits that can help.

"There should be better clarification and transparency as to the allocation of eviction prevention funding from various Federal, State and local resources, particularly for Baltimore City," the group wrote.

A spreadsheet provided by the mayor's Office of Human Services showed it had awarded funds through fiscal year 2015 to HCAM, Bon Secours Community Works, Mercy Supportive Housing, Paul's Place, Public Justice Center and the Franciscan Center.

City officials said that in the next fiscal year it has budgeted $92,174 to Mercy Medical Center, $288,030 to Bon Secours Community Works and $347,349 to University of Maryland, Baltimore. The Public Justice Center is set to receive $78,971 to help tenants in housing court.

Each nonprofit providing eviction prevention grants requires tenants who qualify for grants to take personal finance classes on budgeting and spending before it sends landlords their checks. They work with each individual to make sure they can stay in the home for more than just one month.

Bon Secours Community Works received the most funds last year. Talib Horne, the group's executive director, said landlords are willing to accept the assistance because tenants who go through the classes emerge as better tenants.

Sixty-five percent percent of the tenants who received assistance and mandatory financial lessons in the past three years stayed in their homes for at least six months.

Horne said the classes are essential to help break the cycle of evictions.

"You can pay off an eviction for $700 but then still be $300 behind and they'll be looking for assistance again," he said. "The biggest challenge is helping families get current. Their mindset is that they're only trying to avoid eviction."

His organization can provide grants only to tenants who owe more than $200. Those who owe less are directed to churches. To qualify, single people must earn no more than $18,500. The limit for a family of four is $26,500.

The group began offering the help more than a decade go. Back then, they started with 60 families annually receiving $50 each. Today the group helps at least 250 families with an average of $700.

At a Bon Secours eviction prevention seminar in September, Danny Duston sat staring out the window at his beloved 1998 Honda CVR motorcycle in the parking lot below. The 32-year-old Army veteran was waiting to find out if he qualified for a grant.

Duston and his fiancee were paying $1,300 a month for a two-bedroom apartment on West Lombard Street for themselves and their three children. But when he lost his job as a forklift operator, they couldn't afford the rent. They owed $2,020 and were scheduled to be evicted in a week.

"I might have to sell my bike," he said. "I just lost my job so it's gotta go. I can't have my kids on the street."

Ultimately, Duston was told he was not eligible for a grant. His fiancee made too much money working as a medical assistant.

"The eviction date is set for Thursday," he said.

The couple had saved $1,600. They were offering the motorcycle for $800. If it sold, they could pay and stay.

If not, Dunston said, "it would be a last-minute move."

The bike didn't sell.

The couple put their belongings into storage and moved into a hotel room.

Greer, of Health Care Access, said almost all those the organization helps simply need one-time assistance to get past a temporary crisis, such as the loss of a job or a death in the family.

"Most actually succeed," he said.

Fewer than 4 percent return within the next two years seeking help again, Greer said.

Paul's Place said a boost in funding helped the nonprofit prevent 122 evictions in fiscal 2016, about 30 more than the prior year.

The Pigtown-based group said it budgeted $103,970 in 2016, of which $66,470 came from the city.

"So many individuals in Baltimore are living paycheck to paycheck," said Sadie Smith, until recently deputy director of the group. "We get people who had a change in employment, fewer hours, or someone in the household lost their employment. People who suffer a medical crisis, or have lost benefits. It doesn't take much."

Most landlords accept the group's offer of rental assistance even if it means they will get less than the full amount due or have to wait longer to receive all of it, Smith said.

"It will cost them a whole lot more to evict the tenant," she said.

Smith said the staff works with clients to make sure they avail themselves of all the benefits and services available to them, including those offered by Paul's Place.

Staff members tally up how much a client can save by eating their meals or doing their laundry at the organization's offices on Ward Street, and help them find higher-paying jobs or seek promotions at their current jobs.

Moody remained optimistic he would get the grant he needed to repay April's rent. But Bon Secours was not as certain.

"Our assistance is doubtful due to his income," said Althea E. Saunders-Ranniar, the eviction prevention program's director at Bon Secours. "However, we remain hopeful as we await the outcome of this information. We will hold his case open for as long as we can. Probably another two to three weeks."

Copyright © 2017, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
43°