The mural at the corner of East Madison Street and North Curley Street is hard to miss. In paint splashed over two stories, Rocky Brown — the president of Baltimore’s Bocek/Madison East End Community Association — looks out over the streets he’s dedicated himself to beautifying and protecting. A lion peers out over his right shoulder.
It’s what Brown and his wife, Bernice Moreno, see when they walk out of their front door. And when someone delivered a letter for the couple earlier this month, informing them that their home had been sold and they had 30 days to find a new place to stay, it’s likely what they saw, too.
Brown gets choked up when he talks about the situation he and his wife face. Over the course of the 11 years he’s lived in the neighborhood, he’s revived the defunct community association, gotten local kids together to plant trees and pick up litter, hosted holiday parties and held food drives. On a recent afternoon, he could be found passing out Christmas presents to children in the neighborhood.
Now 67 and recovering from two strokes he suffered during the pandemic, he says he doesn’t have the funds to move.
“I was destroyed,” he said of the moment when he found the notice, dropped off with “no stamp, no nothing.”
“This is my home.”
Up to 200,000 households Maryland are in similar straits — facing risk of eviction as coronavirus deaths and hospitalizations climb and temperatures drop, according to global advisory firm Stout Risius Ross LLC. Now, as officials urge Americans to stay at home, many are wondering if they may soon be out of theirs — a crisis experts worry will have vast public health implications.
After months of negotiations, lawmakers Sunday reached an agreement on a $900 billion economic relief package, which includes $25 billion in assistance for Americans facing eviction — though President Donald Trump has said he might not sign the bill. And Zafar Shah, an attorney for the Public Justice Center, a Baltimore-based advocacy group, said it would take a while for a new pool of money to filter down to the families who needed it.
By the time it reaches them, he worries that thousands already could have been evicted. And local rent assistance programs, which Maryland and other jurisdictions have set up during the pandemic, don’t always solve problems like the ones Brown and Moreno are facing.
An eviction moratorium enacted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and a separate moratorium enacted by Gov. Larry Hogan offer limited protections to Maryland renters. Though the nationwide moratorium was originally set to expire at year’s end, the latest stimulus package would extend it by a month. Additionally, Maryland courts are only hearing emergency eviction cases due to the virus surge.
But advocates worry for what will happen once these temporary protections are lifted and the courts are again fully operational.
Some fear there could be a surge in evictions at a time when social services agencies and nonprofits already are struggling to keep up with increasing need — a confluence that Healthcare for the Homeless CEO Kevin Lindamood predicts could cause homelessness to spike to levels not seen since the Great Depression.
“People that are speculating about what is going to happen are not being alarmist,” he said. “This is a huge problem that I think we are ill-prepared for.”
In Maryland, Strout Risius Ross estimates households owe between $167 million and $310 million — a small slice of the $10.8 billion to $19.8 billion it estimates households owe nationwide.
Brown and his wife said they started to withhold rent a couple of months ago with the hope that doing so would pressure their then-landlord to make the repairs Brown said she’d been neglecting: They haven’t had heat for years, Brown said, the roof leaks and there’s a hole in their kitchen floor, right in front of their sink.
The couple’s former landlord didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment. But Elmer Canales, the new property owner, said he can see from the outside that the house is deteriorating — he purchased it Dec. 3 to fix it up and put it back on the market. He also said Brown and his wife weren’t on a lease when he bought the property.
To make the necessary repairs, Canales said, he needs to enter the property, so he sent the couple a 30-day notice to vacate earlier this month. Now, he said he needs a letter from the couple, informing him whether they’ll need more time to move and the status of payments on the property.
“I need a response from them — what are they going through?” Canales said. ”With the COVID-19, there’s a lot going on, and [that’s true] for everyone.”
But Brown’s niece, Annice Brown, is angry that her aunt and uncle are in this position at all. She’s organized a GoFundMe page to help support the couple and describes their situation as “inhumane.”
“It’s just crazy because … he’s a pillar in the community. He’s done so much for everybody,” Brown said. “It just amazes me that nobody has tried to help him.”
He’s a pillar in the community. He’s done so much for everybody. It just amazes me that nobody has tried to help him.— Annice Brown, on her uncle Rocky Brown
Although evictions always posed a threat to public health, a surge in housing insecurity would be especially dangerous during a pandemic. A not yet peer-reviewed study by several researchers, including two from Johns Hopkins University, found that states that lifted their eviction moratoriums saw an estimated 433,700 excess people contract COVID-19 and 10,700 more people die from the virus.
Research also shows that Black families — who have disproportionately been the ones to sicken and die from the coronavirus — face eviction at higher rates than white families in Baltimore.
After courts resumed eviction proceedings in August, 1,308 evictions were carried out through September — compared with 4,012 evictions during the same period in 2019. Yet more than 47,000 failure-to-pay rent cases were filed in Maryland courts in those two months.
Housing advocates stress that court records do not capture the number of families who choose to move under threat of eviction — before their landlords file a case against them — rather than risk the damage a formal eviction would pose to their credit and ability to rent elsewhere.
Like Brown, Shantel Boykin was recently issued a notice to vacate from her home in Baltimore’s Brooklyn neighborhood — a step that her landlord, Heather Cedeno, said she took after Boykin built up months of back rent and utility and water payments.
Since the coronavirus hit, Boykin has been teleworking and her three boys have been learning online. With everyone home all day, Boykin says their water and utility costs have ballooned, causing her to fall behind on rent in May. Cedeno, though, said she hasn’t paid a full month’s rent since April and owes more than she claims.
Boykin also found out she’s ineligible to receive rental assistance from the city, since Cedeno doesn’t have a valid rental license — something Cedeno, a first-time landlord, said she only found out she needed when she learned Boykin had been declined assistance.
Cedeno said she’s tried to approach Boykin’s situation with compassion, but the house needs repairs and she doesn’t have an income to address them. Additionally, she’s going to foot the bill for the utility payments she said they have missed, since she’s the property owner.
“It’s not my desire to put a family out on the streets, but that’s my only option at this point,” she said.
With just weeks left to find a place to stay, Boykin said her kids have become preoccupied by their housing situation.
“’When are we moving? What’s going on? Is the property owner gonna fix the house for us?’ " Boykin said they’ll ask her. “We’re all just running around with our heads cut off, trying to get through, day by day.”
But Adam Skolnik, executive director of the Maryland Multi-Housing Association, said the 160 owners and managers of rental housing his organization represents also have been hit hard by the pandemic. As of mid-November, according to data Skolnik shared, roughly one in four of the more than 100,000 rental units association members own and manage were behind on rent, and around a third of those late residents owed multiple months’ rent.
He said his members haven’t been afforded the same sympathy as tenants. Instead, they’ve been a “punching bag” for advocates and politicians, he said.
He compared the need for housing to that of the need for food and medical care.
“You haven’t heard any politician anywhere say, ‘Hospitals shouldn’t get paid.’ You haven’t heard anyone say Giant and Harris Teeter should be giving away all their food for free,” he said. “But you have heard politicians and advocates consistently say we should cancel the rent. Or landlords should wait for a year or for months and months and months to get paid.”
In the coming General Assembly session, Shah said legislators and housing advocates alike will focus on what will happen to the thousands of families facing eviction once Maryland’s moratorium expires with the state of emergency. But he said they also will push for broader reform to the state’s rent court system to incentivize landlords to seek other resolutions with their tenants before filing for eviction.
A bill that Democratic Del. Melissa Wells of Baltimore plans to introduce next session would give tenants time to prepare a defense before they go before a judge — and would give judges broader power to delay eviction in emergency cases.
“Because of the bigger cycle of poverty, we have to acknowledge and really look at some solutions to the essential items that everyone must have — shelter is that,” Wells said. “We should be looking at alternatives to make a system in which people can stay housed and in their homes or their apartments.”
In the meantime, though, Brown’s friends and family are working to find him and his wife a new place to live. After years of helping people who were down on their luck, Brown says, he never thought he’d be in the position where he’d be the one in need of assistance.
But no matter where he winds up, Brown says he will continue doing what he was called to do — serving his neighborhood.
“I’m not gonna give up on anything,” he said. “I’m not gonna let my community down.”