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What are your rights as a renter in Baltimore? A FAQ on rent during coronavirus outbreak

As the coronavirus outbreak has kept businesses throughout Maryland closed, some left unemployed or without a paycheck are scrambling to find ways to pay rent.

With landlords still threatening to charge late fees and initiate eviction once the state’s courts reopen, here’s what those people need to know about their rights as a Maryland renter or mortgage payer during the COVID-19 outbreak.

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Do I still have to pay rent during the outbreak?

Most likely, yes, as there is no statewide rent freeze in Maryland like in some other municipalities such as parts of Los Angeles.

The executive order Gov. Larry Hogan signed last month places a moratorium on evictions if the tenant can prove they’ve “suffered a substantial loss of income resulting from COVID-19” or the various closures mandated by the state in response to the outbreak.

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He extended that order earlier this month, also adding a provision that prohibits foreclosures on homes during the coronavirus pandemic.

However, the order did not freeze rent payments nor stop landlords from charging late fees as a result of missed payments.

While city governments can vote to freeze rent payments for privately-owned residences, like Washington D.C.'s city council did this week, no such bill has been passed in Baltimore.

While the state has not frozen rent for those who live in private housing, there may be solutions for those who live in federal housing.

Under the $2 trillion coronavirus response bill signed by President Donald Trump last week, homeowners with federally backed mortgage loans can request payments be postponed for up to 180 days. Homeowners can then request a second 180 postponement, if needed.

The Federal Housing Finance Agency ordered Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to suspend foreclosures and evictions for at least 60 days for some mortgages. Borrowers whose mortgages are owned by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac also can suspend payments for 12 months.

Similar mortgage relief programs are being offered for those with U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development mortgages insured by the Federal Housing Administration or for VA loans through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Can I be evicted for not paying?

Yes, but not right now.

Hogan’s executive order prohibits any eviction process from proceeding in state courts while his emergency orders restricting people in public places and closing businesses are in place.

However, once the orders are lifted and courts are reopened, eviction procedures can continue.

I lost my job and there’s no way I can pay rent. What should I do?

First, you should file for unemployment, as those laid off because of a loss of business or production tied to the outbreak are eligible for unemployment benefits.

Some people who have been ordered by a doctor or public health official to isolate themselves may also be eligible for unemployment benefits, according to the state labor department.

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People can also file for unemployment if their workplace is closed because of social distancing orders, even if they haven’t been formally laid off from their jobs.

And the federal COVID-19 stimulus legislation, the CARES Act, also offers unemployment to a sector of the economy not traditionally eligible for the benefits — the self-employed. Maryland’s system is not yet set up to process those claims, Hogan spokesman Mike Ricci said, adding that labor officials hope to have that up and running the week of April 13.

Both part-time and full-time workers can be eligible for unemployment benefits.

Unemployment claims can be submitted online through the state Labor Department website, or by phone from 7 a.m. until 6 p.m. weekdays. Claimants are asked to provide basic information, including name, Social Security number, address and telephone number; and employment information, including employer contact information and the reason for leaving each job held within the past 18 months.

Anyone who works for the federal government or who has worked outside of Maryland for any part of the past 18 months must file for unemployment by phone, though Ricci said labor officials are looking to allow more people the ability to file online.

For faster service, state labor officials are encouraging people to stagger when they call or go online to request assistance, with last names A through F filing on Mondays, last names G through N filing on Tuesdays and last names O through Z filing on Wednesdays and all names on Thursday and Friday. Marylanders will be helped whenever they file, but officials hope the voluntary system could help spread out the unprecedented surge of claims.

Freeman said the state is working with employers who are ordering mass layoffs to smooth the unemployment claims process for those workers, collecting lists of names directly from the employers.

To continue receiving the benefits, recipients must report any income and, typically, they must also document that they are regularly searching for new work. But Robinson said the state is waiving the work search requirement during the coronavirus pandemic.

Maryland had about $1.3 billion in the fund from which it pays unemployment benefits as of the beginning of the year, according to federal data. At that level, the state is at risk of needing to borrow federal money to meet its unemployment benefit obligations, ranking 37th among states on a measure of fund solvency, according to a U.S. Department of Labor report.

Whether that becomes necessary will depend on how long coronavirus-related business closures last.

Are there other resources available?

Renters should call their landlords to discuss their payment options. The Federal Housing Finance Agency announced Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac will offer multifamily property owners mortgage forbearance if they suspend evictions for renters unable to pay rent due to the coronavirus.

Homeowners need to contact their mortgage servicer to see if they qualify for a mortgage relief program. See your most recent monthly statement for your mortgage lender or servicer’s website and consumer contact information. If you do not have your statement, use the Nationwide Multistate Licensing System to search for the company by name.

Expect long waiting times as servicers are likely dealing with many inquiries at this time. Have your loan statement ready and know how much your income has been reduced and what your weekly unemployment benefits are.

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The Maryland Bankers Association has an online list of what its member banks are doing to help customers. Likewise, the American Bankers Association released an online list of the banks offering payment deferrals with no late fees for mortgage and home equity loans.

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If you have an inquiry or complaint about a mortgage lender or servicer, contact the Maryland Department of Labor by email at DLFRComplaints-LABOR@maryland.gov or by phone at 410-230-6077. The Maryland HOPE Initiative (Home Owners Preserving Equity) also has resources to help you keep your home. Call HOPE at 1-877-462-7555.

The Fair Housing Action Center of Maryland is now directing people to the organization’s housing intake form online after initially offering a slew of county and municipality-specific resources to help Marylanders with rent.

Carol Ott, the organization’s Tenant Advocacy Director, wrote in an email that the fact sheet was taken down “because most of the organizations had closed due to COVID-19, or their funds were tapped out pretty quickly.”

United Way of Central Maryland is collecting donations to help people cover rent.

Are other cities or states freezing rent?

Oakland, California, is temporarily freezing rent until at least the end of May. But rent will still be owed after the freeze is lifted, leaving some to call for the owed payments to be permanently forgiven.

In New York, although Gov. Andrew Cuomo sought to suspend mortgage payments for single-family homes, he has only postponed rent payments, meaning they’ll still be owed after the crisis has passed.

But New York legislators have proposed forgiving 90 days’ worth of those payments completely, as well as offering mortgage relief to landlords whose tenants are impacted. Late fees would also be forgiven.

Specifically in New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio wants to ban any increases in rent this year for the city’s 1 million rent-regulated apartments — a move that would require state approval.

In Massachusetts, Boston and Springfield legislators are considering similar measures. Seattle City Council also passed a non-binding resolution calling for relief.

At the national level, the site Rent Strike 2020 — organized by left-leaning groups such as the Socialists Alternative and the Rose Caucus — has created petitions calling on each state to enact a rent freeze, or risk a strike.

Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden are also calling for a rent freeze and the forgiving of back rent.

The Chicago Tribune contributed to this report.

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