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Housing advocates see spike in clients as eviction hearings resume in Anne Arundel County

Jo Anne Mattson, executive director of Light House homeless shelter in Annapolis, said members of her staff are breaking down in tears on the job, overwhelmed by the sheer number of desperate people forced out of their jobs — and now their homes — because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Mattson and Light House staff anticipated a rise in homelessness as the coronavirus pandemic shuttered businesses, caused employers to slash hours and pushed residents to the brink of eviction. Despite bracing for a crisis, the fallout for so many families has been hard on the heart.

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“We’re used to working with people in heartbreaking situations, we feel we’re doing as much as we can to help, but there’s only so much we can do,” Mattson said. “We’re really seeing people just full of desperation, just at the end of their rope, and that’s hard.”

Advocates expect those numbers to grow.

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District Court judges are working through a backlog in failure-to-pay-rent complaints filed earlier this year before Maryland courts closed during the pandemic’s peak in March. As rent court and eviction cases resumed Monday statewide and in Anne Arundel County, tenants can argue for more time if the pandemic caused a substantial loss in income.

Pam Brown, executive director of the Partnership of Children, Youth and Families, said families evicted before coronavirus hit or at the beginning of the pandemic are among those struggling the most to get back on their feet. The partnership manages Anne Arundel County’s Eviction Prevention Program, which works with local social organizations to halt evictions by paying the rent.

The pandemic made finding new jobs and applying for resources increasingly difficult for people who lost income or housing this winter. Many families ended up in hotels that cost most of their income, Brown said.

And legal judgments brought against tenants, even if they win the case, can stain their credit and make it harder and more expensive to rent other properties in the future.

“I think there’s far more trouble coming down the road for vulnerable families that were already on the edge,” Brown said. “I don’t think we’ve seen all that COVID is going to do, all that COVID is going to hand out to poor people.”

Earlier this year, Gov. Larry Hogan issued an emergency order barring eviction for tenants who provide documents and other materials that prove COVID-19 has affected their ability to pay rent. It is then up to the judge whether to dismiss the case.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention announced Tuesday that renters nationwide can apply for a moratorium blocking eviction by demonstrating a substantial loss in income and an effort to pay partial rent. The federal agency considers evictions during a pandemic a public health risk that would make quarantining, social distancing and other safety measures impossible to follow while homeless.

The CDC order is effective through Dec. 31. The CARES Act eviction moratorium expired in July.

Though evictions have legally just begun to resume, many county residents are at risk of losing stable housing or have lost it already. Many people seeking legal and financial help are doing so for the first time and unsure of how to navigate the complex process, tenant advocates and homeless shelter caseworkers said.

“I’m seeing a lot of people who have never really had any financial emergency,” said Carol Ott, tenant advocacy director for Fair Housing Action Center of Maryland, an advocacy and financial counseling group. “Now suddenly, because of COVID, they’ve found themselves in a position of being unable to pay their bills. And this is all very new to them.”

Ott has seen her yearly average caseload of 100 clients grow by an additional 300 clients in 2020. Around 150 people are seeking guidance through the eviction process. Ott said of those clients, many have told her they could catch up on their unpaid rent as they return to work if they could make partial payments.

“It really boils down to one thing — money,” Ott said. “A lot of the tenants coming to us because they’re being evicted, the only thing that’s gone wrong from them is they just need money to pay their back rent.”

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Since the pandemic hit Maryland in mid-March, more than 85,000 Anne Arundel County residents and more than a million Marylanders have filed for unemployment insurance benefits. The massive surge in benefit seekers tangled up phone lines and inundated the state labor department’s aged system. It took months for some residents to receive emergency cash. A federal program providing a weekly $600 boost to states’ benefits expired in July.

As businesses reopened, tens of thousands of workers returned to their jobs and new unemployment claims filed each week have dropped. But many other workers faced permanent layoffs or drastically reduced hours. Hogan applied and received approval for a Federal Emergency Management Agency program providing $300 a week in addition to Maryland’s benefits. The labor department is working on implementing additional money by late September.

Tenant and landlord advocates agree that government assistance in rental programs is helpful for tenants with rent to pay and landlords with mortgage payments to make.

“We don’t want to evict anyone. That’s not our goal. As a rental property owner, you don’t make money unless the property is occupied and the person’s paying rent,” said Adam Skolnik, executive director of Maryland Multi-Housing Association, an organization that represents owners of apartment communities.

“Anne Arundel County’s rental assistance program has been really useful … and hopefully people can get back to work and there isn’t a tsunami (of evictions). I think there will be a spike.”

The Eviction Prevention Program is funded by CARES Act money and directly pays rent for some tenants below a certain income level. It also provides utility assistance and legal counseling. The Partnership of Children, Youth and Families works on the program with Light House, immigrant advocacy nonprofit Center of Help and career assistance nonprofit Anne Arundel Workforce Development.

The Light House shelter has helped 100 families avoid eviction since April. Around 250 families a week attend the shelter’s food pantry. Most people are new faces experiencing the prospect of eviction and hunger for the first time, Mattson said.

“The people who were vulnerable before COVID ... you throw a pandemic at them and all the things they did to hang on, to make it work, it just gets a million times harder,” Brown said.

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