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New federal evictions protection doesn’t cover parts of Maryland — for now

A new federal government order to protect renters from losing their homes only applies to communities experiencing high coronavirus transmission rates and may not help much of Maryland — including large jurisdictions such as Baltimore and Montgomery counties.

Some tenants’ advocates are hoping that either the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will modify the federal eviction moratorium or that Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan will extend a state evictions order to protect those who aren’t covered by the federal order.

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The Republican governor’s order allows tenants who are facing eviction to explain that they’ve lost income due to the pandemic, and forestall losing their homes. That order is set to expire Aug. 15.

Mike Ricci, a spokesman for the governor, said Wednesday that “no new actions are planned” on housing and evictions issues. Hogan has scheduled a Thursday afternoon news conference about the pandemic.

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“Governor Hogan really needs to extend that eviction order to prevent a deepening health crisis and give more time for federal funds to reach landlords and tenants,” said Matt Hill, an attorney with the nonprofit Public Justice Center, which helps low-income renters. He said an estimated 19% of Maryland families are behind on their rent.

When people lose their rental homes or apartments, they often wind up moving in with relatives or staying in homeless shelters, Hill said. That drives up the chance of spreading the coronavirus.

The new federal order, announced Tuesday by the CDC, is logistically challenging.

The order only bans evictions in areas that have “substantial and high levels” of coronavirus transmission. That’s set by calculating how many new cases are diagnosed per 100,000 residents and the seven-day average testing positivity rate, numbers that are constantly in flux.

The CDC says the moratorium would cover areas where 90% of the U.S. population lives. But many parts of Maryland are left out at the moment because transmission rates currently aren’t high enough.

In the Baltimore metro region, areas with substantial transmission as of Wednesday include Baltimore City, Anne Arundel and Harford counties.

Baltimore, Carroll and Howard counties do not meet the threshold.

Maryland’s most populous county, Montgomery County also would not qualify for the new moratorium, though its neighbor in the Washington suburbs, Prince George’s County, does fall under the order.

“You have a chance of keeping your home if the rates of COVID are high, but if the rates are not high, you’re on your own? I don’t think that’s good policy. I think that’s going to cause a lot of confusion,” said Del. Jheanelle Wilkins, a Montgomery County Democrat who has sponsored tenant-focused bills in Annapolis.

Wilkins said there’s a possibility for even further inequities within a county. One part of a county may have high transmission rates and people who need help with rent, but they are cancelled out by other parts of the county that have less spread.

Wilkins said she’d like the governor to sit through rent court, as she has, and see how desperate people are to catch up on rent and keep their homes.

“There are still gaps,” said U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin, the Maryland Democrat. “There is need here, there is no question about it. It’s been a challenge at the federal level because of the Supreme Court.”

In a June opinion, a number of Supreme Court justices suggested there were legal problems with the CDC’s original moratorium. Courts have not ruled on the latest extension.

The federal government has sent hundreds of millions of dollars to Maryland to help tenants and landlords, but it’s been slow to be distributed. The state and each local government has had to set up programs to get the money out, often partnering with nonprofit organizations.

Cardin and fellow Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen said a significant amount of congressionally-approved rental assistance remains unspent.

“It’s totally unacceptable that only a tiny share of the $46.5 billion in COVID-19 emergency rent payments we worked to pass in Congress have been used to help keep tenants in their homes,” Van Hollen, a Democrat, said. “Federal, state, and local officials must cut the red tape and get these funds out so tenants can stay in their homes and landlords can pay their own bills.”

The federal government set a deadline that 65% of the money must be distributed by Sept. 30, or else it can be pulled back. The Hogan Administration says the state is on track to meet that target.

Carol Ott, tenant advocacy director at Fair Housing Action Center of Maryland, said the federal eviction moratorium doesn’t account for how rapidly changes in the transmission rate can occur. It’s not clear, for example, whether an eviction would move forward if it was filed when a county had a low transmission rate, but the transmission rate is high by the time the case is before a judge.

“They’re putting a lot of faith in data that may or may not reflect what’s going on at that time, and a lot of faith in tenants and landlords to figure out the proper timing,” Ott said.

A better option, she suggested: “Just say: ‘from this date to this date, there will be no evictions except for severe breaches of the lease.’ It would make it so much easier for everybody instead of requiring tenants, landlords and judges to become data analysts.”

Ott said a more straightforward moratorium would give more time for landlords to collect the rental relief they are owed.

”There are so many unanswered pieces of parts of this,” she said. “It was a half-hearted attempt to appease people.”

Sen. Shelly Hettleman said she’s hopeful the federal aid will get distributed before the courts catch up on backlogged evictions cases.

“I think what you’ll see in the next month is a lot more aid coming a lot quicker, and that’s good,” said Hettleman, a Baltimore County Democrat who has worked on housing issues in the legislature.

She hopes that landlords will be patient and not file for eviction if their tenants have applied for rental assistance.

In Anne Arundel County, for example, there are 1,200 people in the pipeline who have applied for help through the federal government’s Eviction Prevention Program.

Baltimore City tenants will have one more tool to help them stay in their homes, at least temporarily. A new law that was sponsored by Councilman Antonio “Tony” Glover requires landlords to renew leases for tenants, as long as the tenant hasn’t “substantially” breached the terms of the lease. A landlord still is allowed to not renew a lease if they want to move in a close relative or renovate the unit, for example.

The city law is in effect until six months after the end of Hogan’s statewide state of emergency, which he has said will fully expire Aug. 15.

With the state and federal orders making it harder for landlords to file to evict tenants, some have turned to filing cases citing breach of lease or what’s known as tenant holding over past the end of the lease instead.

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The city’s “good cause” law has “great promise” to safeguard renters in tenant holding over cases, said Douglas Nivens III, an attorney for Maryland Legal Aid.

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“There’s not an eviction moratorium, but there’s a common belief that there’s an eviction moratorium, and when that belief changes I think we will have more filings — landlords will file more actions, we’ll have more tenants seeking assistance and demand on rental assistance will grow,” Nivens said. “People who are trying to move are having more difficulty moving because the rental market is so heated. So people need more time, especially to find an affordable place to live.”

Baltimore Sun Washington reporter Jeff Barker and Baltimore Sun Media reporter Rachael Pacella contributed to this article.

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