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Maryland housing advocates, attorneys gearing up for potential onslaught of evictions

In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to strike down a pandemic-related federal ban on some evictions, families in Maryland and elsewhere could begin losing their homes later this month despite the availability of a massive amount of available federal rental assistance money designated for landlords.

Housing advocates worry that property owners will start sending notices to tenants now and begin filing evictions this month that could turn into a rush of evictions in September and October, before landlords receive rental assistance payments. Landlords and those who represent them, meanwhile, are downplaying that risk, saying large court backlogs will shield tenants from evictions.

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Thousands of households throughout the state are vulnerable to eviction after losing jobs and income during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, with minority and women-led households — especially women of color — especially at risk, according to local and national data.

More than 27,000 applications for emergency rental assistance payments via state or county channels have been received this year, according to Maryland data, and more than 9,800 households have received financial help. About 4,500 households were assisted in July alone.

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Many more households had been protected from eviction by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s temporary halt on evictions due to income lost as a result of the pandemic. The CDC’s moratorium, which would have run until Oct. 3, applied to individuals living in jurisdictions with “substantial” or “high” rates of COVID-19 transmission, accounting for all of Maryland and much of the nation.

The Supreme Court ruled late Thursday that the CDC does not have such authority to halt evictions. Congress does, the court said, but there is no indication that federal lawmakers will act to extend the moratorium.

“With this new decision, those tenants who lost income due to the pandemic who would have at least until Oct. 3 before facing an eviction will face a sooner eviction date,” Douglas Nivens II, an attorney for Maryland Legal Aid, said of the Supreme Court’s decision Thursday.

Many landlords already have filed complaints against tenants for failing to pay rent and are waiting to receive a judgment now, said Matt Hill, an attorney who leads the Human Right to Housing Project at the Public Justice Center.

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“You’ve got all these reserved judgments and warrants, and the question is, how quickly will the courts move forward and how quickly will the sheriff move to issue the warrants?” Hill said.

Hill said he and his team are proactively reaching out to clients with reserved judgments, many of whom are waiting for rental assistance to make its way through backlogged systems, looking for new places to live or struggling to pay off what they owe.

“It all adds up to a greater sense of urgency and anxiety,” he said. “We’re in uncharted territory.”

Landlords are not legally obligated to accept rental assistance payments, but most want to, said Adam Skolnik, executive director of the Maryland Multi-Housing Association, a trade association that works with property owners.

Skolnik said the relatively low numbers of evictions that have taken place — and warrants of restitution that have been filed — since the start of the pandemic, indicates property owners’ willingness to work with tenants.

He said courts’ backlogs serve as a “de facto” moratorium on evictions and will give tenants and landlords more time to sort through the rental assistance programs, which can be cumbersome. Landlords who have filed eviction cases in August have not even received court dates yet, Skolnik noted, and those who filed earlier this summer have received dates for 2022.

“I don’t think there’s going to be a wave or a tsunami because nothing statistically proves there’s going to be a massive wave,” he said.

In Maryland, there are four types of eviction cases: failure to pay, tenant holding over, breach of lease and wrongful detainer. The state and national moratoriums mostly applied to failure-to-pay cases, allowing the other types to move forward.

Tenant-holding-over cases have jumped, especially in Baltimore, data shows. More tenant-holding-over cases, in which a landlord asks the court to remove a tenant who’s stayed beyond their lease term, were filed in July 2021 than during July 2020 and July 2019 combined, according to the latest district court figures. Statewide, the trends are similar, with tenant-holding-over cases rising well beyond pre-pandemic levels.

No evictions occurred in Maryland during April and May 2020, according to state district court data. But since then, they have resumed, though not at the same pace they occurred before the pandemic, data shows.

Part of the problem with the rental assistance money, Skolnik said, is that many local jurisdictions went with a tenant-based approach to distributing rental assistance funds, and that process has been very slow. He said programs like the United Way of Central Maryland’s Strategic, Targeted Eviction Program, known as STEP, which allows landlords to send applications on behalf of tenants with their consent, will be more effective.

A spokeswoman for Gov. Larry Hogan pointed out that Maryland counties have spent only a fraction of the available relief funding.

“We continue to urge county leaders to get that relief out the door as quickly as possible,” spokeswoman Kata Hall said.

Maryland received about $401 million in federal rental assistance, according to the state’s emergency rental assistance program dashboard. About $143 million went directly to the eight largest jurisdictions, while $258 million was allocated to the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development for statewide distribution.

About $17 million of the $258 million has been distributed as of mid-August, and an additional $30.3 million is pending disbursement, according to the state.

Of the $143 million given directly to local governments, at least $42.5 million has been distributed through July, data shows. An additional $6.3 million is in progress. And large jurisdictions such as Baltimore City and Baltimore County are using other funds before moving through the federal assistance dollars, citing strict spending deadlines.

State data shows wide disparities among those who have applied for and received state-administered benefits, with women making up close to 70% of the assisted households and Black individuals accounting for about 64% of the recipient base.

Most of the recipients are 25 to 61 years old, and a slight majority have been unemployed for more than 90 days, according to the data. About 55% of the recipients earn 0% to 30% of the area median income.

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The U.S. Treasury Department is requiring states to distribute 65% of the relief by Oct. 15. Hogan spokesman Michael Ricci said Maryland is on track to meet that deadline.

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