Nearly 26,000 Baltimore City households face uncertainty after the U.S. Supreme Court blocked President Joe Biden’s plan to extend an eviction moratorium until Oct. 3.
That’s how many city households are behind on rent, according to a report by Chief Judge John P. Morrissey of the Maryland District Court, which handles eviction cases.
The Supreme Court overturned Biden’s plan that would have extended a nationwide moratorium that ended Aug. 15 but only for localities considered by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to be experiencing substantial or high rates of coronavirus transmission. Such areas now cover much of the United States and all of Maryland.
“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,” said Douglas Nivens II, an attorney for Maryland Legal Aid, of the Supreme Court’s decision Thursday.
Advocates warned that Black and Latino renters will face disproportionate harm as evictions resume. In Maryland, Latino families comprise 28.3% of tenants behind on rent, while African Americans make up 21.5%, according to a survey based on May figures by the Washington, D.C.-based National Women Law Center.
Asked whether Gov. Larry Hogan might reinstate a state eviction moratorium after the Supreme Court struck down the federal ban, his spokeswoman Kata Hall pointed Friday to the slow pace of rental aid trickling out to tenants and landlords.
In a statement, Hall said: “As the governor has stressed, Maryland has committed more than $110 million in state relief for renters and distributed an additional $400 million in federal dollars. So far, the counties have only spent about 20% of their funding. We continue to urge county leaders to get that relief out the door as quickly as possible.”
But, even with the moratorium, evictions continued via alternative legal routes. Some landlords filed tenant holding over cases, where they allege a tenant remains in the property even though the lease has expired and seek to remove them.
Baltimore City last year passed a right to counsel law, meaning tenants facing eviction-related proceedings should have access to legal representation. In July, it also passed a law requiring landlords to provide substantial reasons not to renew leases.
Zafar Shah, an attorney for Public Justice Center, said the right to counsel law has not been fully implemented, and he’s not aware of all the details about the city’s new lease renewal law, including whether it’s retroactive.
Shah is worried that such protections won’t be enough to stem a rising tide of evictions, especially without a moratorium, because landlords are not required to accept rent relief funds.
“Why does this housing instability and inability to pay rent continue? We know that the top job losses were concentrated with these households of color,” he said.
Black and Latino people face higher back rent rates for multiple reasons, ranging from being unable to take off time for court hearings to low-paying jobs, said Sarah Hassmer, senior counsel for income security for the National Women Law Center.
And rent relief programs, while well intentioned, can take months to process requests for assistance, housing advocates and tenants said.
The Latino and the immigrant community face challenges accessing government assistance for such reasons as language and computer literacy barriers, said Gabriela Roque, the Central Maryland lead organizer of CASA de Maryland, a leading immigrant advocacy group. Additionally, even the threat to take them to court is often enough to scare them to vacate, she said.
“I don’t think many people in the Latino immigrant community know they have a right to go to court, and try to stay in their homes [and] fight the eviction,” Roque said. “Many landlords take advantage of people [having] little knowledge about the laws here.”
More than 40 people protested Aug. 11 at War Memorial Plaza, demanding Hogan and Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott extend the eviction moratorium as well as require landlords to accept rent relief funding before filing for eviction.
Organized by advocacy group Baltimore Renters United, protesters chanted: “No More Evictions” and “The People United Will Never Be Defeated.” Signs read: “Housing is a Human Right” and “This is an Emergency.”
But landlord advocates argue that ending the moratorium is a fair move, saying tenants should apply for rental assistance and cooperate with property managers.
“It’s not right for [tenants] to be sitting around in these units not paying rent and [not] communicating what the issue is,” said Katherine Kelly-Howard, vice president and general counsel of Regional Management Inc., a property management firm with properties in Baltimore City and County. “Perhaps the only way to get them to focus on these issues is to begin filing failure to pay rent again.”
There won’t be a tsunami of evictions as tenant advocates warned because the courts won’t be able to process the backlog of eviction filings fast enough, Kelly-Howard said. She acknowledged some tenants have faced financial hardships, but landlords also have bills to pay, including the mortgage on many properties and maintenance.
Kelly-Howard lauded the outreach of the United Way of Central Maryland’s Strategic, Targeted Eviction Program, a landlord-based pilot rental assistance program known as STEP. Unlike the individual tenant-based rental assistance program, STEP allows landlords to send applications on behalf of tenants with their consent, said Scott Gottbreht, the United Way’s vice president of housing.
STEP launched in December in Baltimore County, securing $4 million in assistance that was applied to rent for 935 households. The program targets low-income areas, and pays rent for tenants at least three months behind, Gottbreht said.
In Baltimore City, Black households accounted for 71% of rental assistance applications based on June figures, followed by white households at 5.3% and immigrants at 4%, wrote Stefanie Mavronis, a spokeswoman for the Mayor’s Office, in an email. Female-led households made up 45% of the applicants, she said.
The city has approved 4,281 applications for rental assistance since March 2020, paying out about $20 million. To address delays in approving applications, the city has prioritized tenants facing imminent risk of eviction and utility termination, Mavronis said.
Baltimore Sun’s politics reporter Pamela Wood contributed to this report.