Watching over her 7-year-old daughter, burning with a terrible fever at the hospital last summer, Cinthia Sanchez learned the news: The girl had tested positive for COVID-19.
One by one, the rest of the family fell ill with the virus — her younger son, her husband, Sanchez herself. While they all gradually recovered, she still had to wrestle with another fear: Without her husband working in construction, they were not going to be able to pay rent.
Across Baltimore’s Latino communities this past year, parents like Sanchez have been pulled under by the pandemic. Many are front-line workers who are more at risk of getting the virus and losing time at work. And with so many businesses closed, many lost their jobs. Either way, they can’t pay their rent and face major debt and housing insecurity.
“We suffer a lot of stress,” Sanchez said. “We do not live a calm life, thinking that the rent is past due and then comes the bills. Many people have thoughts of dying, because they are boxed in [and] do not see a way out.”
The pandemic has exacerbated long-standing housing struggles for Latino residents, said Zafar Shah, an attorney with the Public Justice Center. They often earn minimum or even subminimum wages in a city where rents are often unaffordable for them.
A month before the pandemic, in February 2020, a national poll found a third of Latino renters spent more than 40% of their monthly income on housing costs.
Many turn to multifamily or crowded housing, staying on couches or packing a family into a room to make ends meet. Renters are vulnerable to intimidation from landlords, who in some cases, lawyers allege, have threatened to call ICE or sexually harassed tenants. Researchers note many landlords operate on razor-thin margins, themselves struggling to make ends meet.
The Latino community, concentrated in the 21224 ZIP code in East Baltimore’s Highlandtown and Greektown, has suffered during the pandemic with the second-highest concentration of COVID-19 cases per capita in Baltimore City. Latinos make up 5.3% of Baltimore’s population but 9.7% of the city’s coronavirus cases.
They’re also taking huge hits in the workplace. In March and April 2020, Hispanic workers represented 57% of working-age adults in families who lost jobs, work hours or work-related income. About 14.4 million people from mixed-status families of U.S. citizens and immigrants were ineligible for stimulus checks, and government aid has not been swift, causing this community to fall further behind on housing payments. Through September and November 2020, the U.S. census household survey data showed that up to half of Maryland’s Hispanic households couldn’t pay their prior month’s rent.
“With COVID, it’s been like a never-ending crisis,” said Kate Jakuta, a family stability program manager at Southeast Community Development Corporation, a Baltimore nonprofit that offers housing counseling, budget help and other services.
All of her clients are immigrant families and all but one lost jobs during the pandemic.
“I’ve been working with them maybe for six or seven months,” Jakuta said, “but it’s like we’re still in month one, in a crisis mode.”
Reyna González, 61, and her husband, 57, immigrated to Baltimore from Honduras and El Salvador over 20 years ago. In May, both were out of work for a month after contracting COVID-19, and she spent five days in the hospital, unable to speak to family.
“We used to work 45 hours [a week], and now, we work 24 hours, so it’s become more difficult to pay bills and rent,” said González, adding that they’re now four months behind on rent. “We’ve had days where we had nothing to eat.”
This month, the couple got vaccinated in Highlandtown’s Sacred Heart of Jesus Church, but the virus is still spreading at their workplaces.
Said González: “Last week, we didn’t work, because there were 10 cases.”
There has been some help: The city launched a cash assistance and eviction prevention program last summer. Spanish speakers accounted for 90% of applicants for cash assistance and 78% highlighted rent and housing as their greatest financial need. Of the $38 million available in funding for eviction prevention, more than $6 million has been distributed as of March 25 to 2,413 households, and 12% of those were Latino.
Court-ordered evictions continue despite moratoriums on evictions by both Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. According to the advocacy group Renters United Maryland, more than 3,000 Maryland families have been evicted since July. In Baltimore City alone, there were more than 200 court-ordered evictions in January and February.
For Sanchez and her family, it started when her husband Axel Lopez was laid off in January 2020, and they fell behind on rent in April. After they all got sick in June, they applied for and got rental assistance in July.
Then after recovering from COVID-19, Lopez had two health scares, including a hospital stay in September. In November, he was assaulted and his car was stolen outside their Highlandtown home; he spent three days in the hospital. They struggled to pay his medical bills and the 11 pills a day he takes for epilepsy.
“All that time, it was even worse, because he could no longer work,” Sanchez said. “Not only was it because of the virus, but he was also hurt.”
Sanchez said their landlord of six years has been understanding during this past year, even helping her apply for rental assistance.
But advocates say they are seeing other landlords intimidating tenants.
“We hear stories of landlords coming by the house twice a week, knocking on the door, saying, ‘Where’s my money?’” said Carolina Paul, one of two Spanish-speaking paralegals at the Public Justice Center. “We hear stories of landlords letting themselves into the house and moving the tenant’s possessions around as a form of intimidation. Particularly with this community, threats of calling ICE, sexual harassment, is not uncommon by landlords.”
Zelma Ortiz, an investigator with Baltimore’s Office of Equity and Civil Rights, said complaints have risen from two calls every other week to three calls a day.
Some tenants have been illegally locked out, said Lydia Walther-Rodriguez, Baltimore and Central Maryland region director of CASA. Walther-Rodriguez noted that out of 300 community members needing assistance with eviction prevention, two-thirds were renting from landlords without a license.
According to Adam Skolnik, executive director of the Maryland Multi-Housing Association, housing providers have experienced revenue reductions of more than 33% throughout the pandemic, and members are ensuring that “low-income tenants, Latino tenants, and all tenants have access to rental assistance.”
“Lockouts, harassment and threats to tenants violate the law, and if the incidents did occur, then the individual rental property owners responsible should absolutely be held accountable,” said Skolnik, who is unaware of any incidents of landlord intimidation or discrimination.
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Many Latino residents don’t know their rights and have trouble accessing legal information, so they are particularly in danger from threats of eviction, advocates say.
To bridge the knowledge gap, the city’s Office of Equity and Civil Rights created a webinar for fair housing and online resources targeting immigrants and refugees in Spanish. Pedro Palomino, a community journalist and founder of a Spanish-language website, Somos Baltimore Latino, has hosted Facebook Live sessions with Paul and Ortiz to educate Latinos and Spanish-speakers on their tenant rights.
Sanchez feels the state could do more to inform immigrants and the undocumented community about available services. The family reapplied for the eviction prevention program in December and are still waiting. City officials said they are processing almost 3,000 applications, but expect it to take several weeks and have hired 25 additional people to help. Meanwhile, 1,826 more people applied in a more recent round.
“I hope I get help from the city,” Sanchez said. “It’s thousands of dollars, a lot of money that if I didn’t get it, I’d have to run, because how am I going to pay for all that?”
For financial assistance in Baltimore City to avoid eviction, call 211 and the Baltimore City Community Action Partnership (CAP), https://www.bmorechildren.com/residents/#rent.
To seek no-cost legal advice and possible representation, call Public Justice Center at (410) 625-9409.
Stephanie García is a 2020-21 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project, a national service program that places emerging journalists in local newsrooms. She covers issues relevant to Latino communities. Follow her @HagiaStephia