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Baltimore’s rental assistance fund has room for hundreds more applicants before Sunday’s deadline

Baltimore’s $13 million rental assistance fund is expected to have room for hundreds of more applicants before Sunday’s deadline, giving tenants affected by the coronavirus the chance to access money to get caught up on their living expenses.

The city Department of Housing and Community Development estimates the emergency aid program could serve about 6,000 households, providing a projected average of $1,600 in assistance for rent owed in April, May and June. So far, the agency has received about 5,000 applications from renters who lost income because of the coronavirus pandemic.

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Baltimore Housing Commissioner Michael Braverman said tenants must be current on their rent through March 31 to qualify, although the agency will now accept applicants who are up-to-date on a payment plan to cover rent owed before April.

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Braverman said the goal is to get ahead of a wave of evictions that are expected to hit in the coming weeks. A moratorium has blocked landlords from being able to petition the court to kick their tenants out of housing during the pandemic, but that protection is expected to expire July 25.

“We really want households to take advantage of this program now, even though the courts are not actively engaged in evictions,” Braverman said. “We extended the deadline to try to reach as many families as possible.”

While the agency’s projections show the program could serve 6,000 households, Braverman said assistance is not guaranteed to all who apply.

Some applicants will be given preference over others, including those with children at home, people older than 60, and homes that have at least three people living in them. Variables — how much the rent is for and how far behind the tenant is, for instance — will affect how many households can get help.

Matt Hill, a member of the Fair Development Roundtable and an attorney with the Public Justice Center, said the need for rental assistance is vast. And the city’s program is unlikely to come close to meeting the demand, in part due to the rigid requirements for the federal government funds that go toward Baltimore’s emergency relief program.

Tens of thousands of households have fallen behind since the outbreak hit, Hill said. Projections show two times as many renters are falling behind as the 12,000 who typically struggle each month in Baltimore.

“That is a really concerning, huge number,” Hill said.

With so much of Baltimore’s workforce dependent on the tourism, hospitality and the service sectors, the city has been especially hard hit by the prolonged business closures during the pandemic. The city’s unemployment rate was 11.1% in May, the last month for which local data is available. Between March and April, the rate jumped from 4.9% to 11.6%.

To help people stay in their homes, more than $60 million is being provided across Maryland for rental assistance and eviction prevention programs, including the $13 million fund in Baltimore. Much of the funding is from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, also known as the CARES Act.

Hill said so many are in desperate situations due to the pandemic, and much more help is needed. He said he has talked to some people who used their federal stimulus check, borrowed money or put necessities on credit cards to catch up on bills in April, May and June and, now, in July, have run out of options.

“They don’t have any money for food, or to pay utility bills, and they certainly don’t have any money for July’s rent,” Hill said. “There is an immense amount of human suffering.”

To qualify for the emergency aid, tenants need a valid lease signed by a landlord who has a property license. Proof of income lost due to COVID-19 is also required.

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Income limits apply. People who live in a home with two people must earn less than $41,600. The threshold is $36,400 for people who live alone, $46,800 for homes with three people, and $52,000 if four people live in the home.

Tenants who received unemployment benefits must pay a portion of their late rent.

The one-time emergency aid will be paid directly to landlords. The property owners must agree to waive any late fees and accept 80% of the rent due for April, May and June as full payment from the city.

People who live in public housing or use a Section 8 voucher to pay rent do not qualify.

The agency’s goal is to process the payments by the end of July.

“It has been an all-hands-on-deck city response,” Braverman said.

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