Gamal Martinez always found a way to pay the rent on time, cobbling together the $800 necessary to keep his family of six in the Southeast Baltimore rowhouse they’ve called home for nearly a decade.
But then he lost his job working in construction. And his wife’s hours at Chick-fil-A were slashed. As others across the nation got much-needed stimulus checks from the federal government, this family of Honduran immigrants didn’t qualify.
Ever since the coronavirus pandemic began devastating their lives and community, they’ve been falling behind on rent payments. They try to pull together what they can, saying that can mean choosing between food and rent when trying to send their landlord checks for about $400 a month. Martinez stays up at night wondering if his family eventually will be forced out of their home, where the front door is decorated with a sticker of the U.S. Constitution.
Other families across Maryland are facing the same fears, as about one in five residential rental units has fallen into delinquency. Residents and tenant advocates say they are bracing for a potential “tsunami” of evictions once court proceedings resume and federal coronavirus aid evaporates — developments expected to collide at the end of this month.
With yet another rent payment due for July, Martinez joined dozens of advocates outside a Baltimore courthouse downtown to demand expanded relief for families like his. Protesters held signs urging Republican Gov. Larry Hogan to “cancel rent.”
“Since the virus started, we have suffered to find the means to pay rent,” Martinez, 45, told the crowd through a bullhorn, in Spanish.
In late June, Hogan announced a $30 million eviction prevention program, but tenants’ rights groups estimate that more than five times that amount is needed to begin ensuring people are not displaced at a time when they’re being urged to stay at home to help reduce the spread of COVID-19. Advocates caution that those affected are most likely to be the Black and brown communities already suffering disproportionately from the unrelenting public health crisis.
The executive of one of Maryland’s wealthiest counties recently quipped that unless his constituents alone benefited from the entire fund established by Hogan, it wouldn’t help much.
“We need something resembling serious money,” Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich said during a recent House of Delegates committee hearing on evictions.
An Aspen Institute model estimating potential evictions found that as many as 330,000 people could be at risk in Maryland by the end of the year. Research shows that Black families, and especially those led by Black women, face eviction at much higher rates than white families in Baltimore.
Officials have taken some other steps to help the tens of thousands of renters who have watched the pandemic wipe out their jobs and livelihoods. Hogan signed an executive order in March prohibiting eviction during the COVID-19 state of emergency if a tenant can demonstrate they lost a substantial amount of income because of the pandemic.
His order has so far been untested with courts closed because of social distancing measures.
And even with it in place, some advocates accuse property managers of trying to kick people out of their homes anyway.
“The crisis is right now,” said Zafar Shah of the Maryland Public Justice Center.
The additional $600 in weekly jobless benefits provided by the federal government also will end around the same time the courts are reopening. Tens of thousands of people counted on that extra money to make rent.
“Every day is a day closer to this cliff when a lot of the protection and measures will all be ending,” said Karen Wabeke, with the Homeless Persons Representation Project. “Action is needed to keep residents from falling off this cliff and into homelessness.”
Kevin Lindamood, president and CEO of Health Care for the Homeless in Baltimore, said the pandemic has painfully revealed the way Marylanders were experiencing a housing affordability crisis before COVID-19.
In Baltimore City, 20% of the households are at risk of homelessness, he said, because they spend more than half their income on housing.
“Communities throughout Maryland, I think, are not prepared for what is about to come,” Lindamood said. “Homelessness is fatal for many reasons, and to think that we are poised to watch it increase so dramatically without taking available steps to prevent it is rather alarming.”
He argued that Maryland needs to follow Pennsylvania’s decision to invest $175 million of its coronavirus relief funds into housing relief programs. Maryland’s $30 million, he said, “is akin to sending a medic to a battlefield with a box of Band-Aids.”
“The administration has a dramatic underappreciation for the breadth and depth of the housing crisis that is about to hit us when the courts reopen and eviction moratoria are lifted,” Lindamood said.
Asked whether the governor plans to devote more money toward the assistance program, Hogan spokesman Mike Ricci pointed out that more than $60 million dollars is being invested in preventing evictions — when you take into account local efforts on top of the one launched by the state.
In Baltimore, Democratic Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young has earmarked roughly $13 million in federal coronavirus relief for such aid. Similar programs are available to residents of Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Harford and Howard counties.
“Homelessness is fatal for many reasons, and to think that we are poised to watch it increase so dramatically without taking available steps to prevent it is rather alarming.”— Kevin Lindamood, president and CEO of Health Care for the Homeless
The one-time emergency payments for renters in the city will be made directly to landlords to help tenants get current on April, May and June rent. Even before the application period opened Wednesday, city officials warned that not every applicant will receive aid.
According to the Maryland Multi-Housing Association, which represents owners and managers of rental housing, landlords are trying to work on plans with their tenants about how to pay. Adam Skolnik, the association’s executive director, said many will try to avoid eviction proceedings.
“If you’re a person who’s falling behind on your rent and you don’t communicate with your rental housing provider, that person’s probably going to get evicted, but that’s the same kind of thing [that happens] pre-COVID,” Skolnik said.
Carol Ott, with the Fair Housing Action Center of Maryland, has seen a 450% increase in requests for help over the same time period last year, with most coming in April and May. She said she’s fielding reports of tenant harassment and threats of illegal evictions.
She’s worried about what will come the third week of July, when Maryland’s District Court is scheduled to resume hearing nonemergency cases between landlords and tenants and the chief judge lifts the stay on residential evictions beginning July 25.
Meanwhile, Ricci said the governor’s open-ended executive order is “designed to give tenants a strong defense in any eviction proceedings” by requiring judges to take into account whether tenants have suffered a “substantial loss of income” because of the pandemic.
Wabeke cautioned that no one is sure how the order will “function in reality.”
“We don’t know what the standards are and what the courts will accept in terms of proof and evidence of job loss,” she said.
Hunter Pickels, a housing policy officer with the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development, acknowledged that there likely will be a steep backlog of eviction filings once courts reopen.
“Right now, the steps that counties are taking, that the state is taking, to make sure people can’t be actually evicted, that is a substantial step that should protect Maryland renters,” he told lawmakers at their hearing.
That sentiment does little to assuage some tenants’ fears.
Dorsheena Hagler and her daughter lost their home in 2011, and she has moved since into a transitional home in the city — a type of housing that allows people earning too little to pay for long-term housing to work toward that goal. She pays $400 a month with her 18-year-old daughter, who works and goes to college.
Breaking News Alerts
But Hagler owes $1,600 in rent, and she wasn’t eligible for federal stimulus money that could have offset the costs. Friends have paid off $600, but her daughter has been furloughed and the balance is due.
“It’s been like hell,” Hagler, 43, said. “At the end of the month, they can file against me, and I’ll be back in the regular emergency shelter.”
As state lawmakers probed the issue during Monday’s hearing, some zeroed in on the need to help both renters and their landlords, who also have costs they’re responsible for, like building mortgages and insurance.
“We don’t want an eviction tsunami,” said Del. Kumar Barve, a Montgomery County Democrat who chairs the Environment and Transportation Committee. “We don’t want to hurt the business community, either.”
The General Assembly is not scheduled to reconvene for months, and Barve acknowledged that major actions will have to come through executive orders.
In Washington, U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin has joined a group of federal lawmakers in calling for a nationwide eviction moratorium through next March.
In the meantime, though Martinez and his wife try to shield their four children from their reality, 10-year-old Dallana will continue asking: “What are we going to do about rent?”