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To help tenants amid COVID, Baltimore County is covering their back rent — if landlords agree to discount the bill

In a new approach to preventing evictions, Baltimore County has been making bulk payments to apartment managers in some neighborhoods to help cover back rent owed by tenants struggling economically in the pandemic.

The Strategic Targeted Eviction Prevention program — a county partnership with the United Way of Central Maryland — was funded using $4 million from the federal CARES Act Coronavirus Relief Fund. It paid up to nine months of back rent to landlords who agreed to discount the amount owed in return for the payment.

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Using data to identify communities most vulnerable to evictions, the county opened the program to households with children or senior citizens that have lost income because of COVID-19. More than 900 families participated.

Among them was Rachel Dillon of Parkville. She had a new baby when she lost her receptionist job at a dental office as the pandemic shut down Maryland last year.

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When the office reopened months later, her hours were cut to about six a week. Then she got sick with COVID-19. Although she eventually found a new job as an admitting specialist at a hospital, she owed about $8,000 to her landlord and didn’t know how she would catch up.

The program paid five months of her past due rent. Now, “I feel like I can move forward,” said Dillon, 24.

Created as the pandemic has pushed many renters to the brink of crisis, the STEP program has used its first round of funding. In the coming months, the county plans to use a portion of the $24.7 million in recently awarded federal eviction-prevention funding to expand the initiative.

Across Maryland, up to 200,000 households are at risk for eviction, housing advocates say. Two eviction moratoriums offer limited protection to renters. A federal moratorium expires March 31. In Maryland, some renters struggling financially because of the pandemic may have a defense against eviction under an order by Republican Gov. Larry Hogan.

“You’ve got people who haven’t paid rent since April,” said Terry Hickey, the county’s deputy director of housing and community development.

United Way officials initially approached Baltimore County with a slightly different model based on programs in other states, then worked with the county to devise the STEP framework.

Typically, someone applies individually for rental assistance. STEP took a different approach by “bundling” past-due rental accounts.

To choose which neighborhoods would be targeted, the county and United Way analyzed factors including unemployment numbers, the location of COVID “hot spots,” income, age and food insecurity.

The idea was to zero in on areas most at risk for both evictions and for COVID-19 — “a dangerous mix from a public health and an anti-poverty perspective,” Hickey said.

They targeted ZIP codes in Dundalk, Essex, Middle River, Rosedale, Halethorpe, Parkville, Gwynn Oak, Windsor Mill and Owings Mills.

Then the United Way worked with the Maryland Multi-Housing Association to identify more than 20 rental management companies operating in those areas to participate, including Apartment Services, Henderson-Webb, Morgan Properties and Westminster.

The United Way managed landlord outreach and reviewed accounts submitted by the property owners. The county conducted an additional review and paid the eligible landlords, while United Way handled follow-up communication with the tenants.

The program focused on apartment complexes with lower rents. It made payments covering three to nine months of past due rent for families in about 90 properties.

Landlords had to agree to some conditions, including that for households in the program, they would forgive 20% of past due rent, waive fees and costs, and dismiss eviction complaints they had already filed.

In effect, “We’re buying in bulk, so we have more bargaining power with landlords,” said Scott Gottbreht, the United Way of Central Maryland’s associate vice president of homeless services.

The landlords retained the ability to not a renew a lease at the end of the lease term.

The bulk payments, made in January and February, allowed the county to quickly cover many more people in a shorter time frame than traditional rental assistance, county officials said.

Both housing advocates and property owners say the approach offered administrative efficiencies at a time when there is great demand for aid.

The landlords handled much of the documentation.

For tenants with limited time and resources, “having the landlord be able to initiate that process, with the tenants’ consent, we think is very helpful,” said Matt Hill, a housing attorney with the Public Justice Center in Baltimore.

For many property owners, participating made financial sense, said Adam Skolnik, executive director of the Maryland Multi-Housing Association.

Receiving “80% of the rent is better than 0% of the rent,” he said.

Given the increase in unemployment and a lack of child care brought on by the pandemic, “many tenants are multiple months in arrears,” said John Riehl of Obrecht-Riehl Properties.

“Without the ability to earn employment income, they’re not going to be able to pay,” Riehl said.

Several tenants at the company’s Fairlawn Apartments in Dundalk received aid from the program.

Franklyn Baker, president and CEO of the United Way of Central Maryland, said housing is among the top reasons people have called the organization’s 211 help line, which helps people in need connect with community resources and social services.

Baker said the STEP program’s approach illustrated what he sees as a strength of County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr.’s administration — using data in decision making.

The program touched on another issue during the pandemic: Around the state, many jurisdictions struggled to distribute coronavirus relief funds, citing administrative rules and uncertainty about how long the pandemic would last.

“Money has been slow to move, and that’s been no secret,” Gottbreht said.

Hill said that despite the influx of federal funds, “there was a lack of capacity to really administer a significant amount of money at some agencies.”

The STEP program has not worked out for all tenants.

Carol Ott, director of tenant advocacy for the Fair Housing Action Center of Maryland, said she worked with a county tenant who received assistance from STEP.

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At first, it was going well for the tenant, but in February, the landlord informed him that his lease would not be renewed when it expired in March.

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While not technically an eviction, such a nonrenewal can still leave the tenant without a home, she said.

Nonrenewals have been “a huge problem” for renters during the pandemic, said Hill.

Hill and others say the STEP program’s approach does not address every problem facing renters. For instance, he said, state law makes it “very difficult for tenants to get any kind of relief … on uninhabitable conditions, particularly if they’re behind on rent.”

“The STEP program is not the answer to everything,” Gottbreht said.

Still, the program’s supporters say it has provided a clean slate for many renters, which can clear the way for people to get back on track with finding employment and assistance.

“We don’t want you looking for help when you have 10 months of rent hanging over head,” Hickey said.

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