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Baltimore City Council approves legislation to prohibit rent increases during coronavirus state of emergency

The Baltimore City Council approved legislation Monday night that would prohibit landlords from increasing tenants’ rent while the city is grappling with the coronavirus pandemic.

The COVID-19 Rent Increase Protection Act would prevent a landlord from raising a tenant’s rent during the current state of emergency and for three months after it’s lifted. Landlords also wouldn’t be allowed to charge late fees during that time period.

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Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan declared a state of emergency March 5 due to the coronavirus.

Nearly one in five working Marylanders have filed for unemployment benefits since the beginning of March as restrictions intended to slow the virus’ spread have shuttered businesses and upended the economy.

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“When you don’t know where your next check is coming from, you shouldn’t have to worry or stress about your landlord raising rent during the biggest health and economic emergency of our lifetime,” City Council President Brandon Scott said.

A spokesman for Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young did not immediately respond when asked whether he intends to sign the bill.

The Housing Authority of Baltimore City is exempted from the bill’s requirements because federal law requires public housing agencies to determine rent based on a resident’s household income and adjust accordingly.

HABC officials say they are already working with tenants who have lost their jobs to reexamine their rental payments. Under federal coronavirus relief legislation, the agency is also is prohibited from evicting tenants for not paying rent through July 24.

At a recent hearing on the bill, tenant advocates thanked the council for protecting residents from rent hikes. At the same time, some landlords argued they also need relief and were counting on rent increases to help them pay their own bills.

The Maryland Multi-Housing Association, which represents owners and managers of rental housing, said the bill could trigger a “logistical nightmare” as it is currently written. The group asked for the legislation to be amended so that it applies prospectively — meaning landlords would only be prohibited from increasing rent once the law goes into effect.

The amendment was swiftly condemned by advocates and the council did not end up approving the change. As written, the bill states that if a rent increase was scheduled to take effect after March 5, landlords must now inform the tenant to disregard that change.

Montgomery County recently passed legislation prohibiting landlords from increasing tenants’ rent by more than 2.6% after April 24 and during the COVID-19 state of emergency.

Also at Monday night’s meeting, the Baltimore City Council sent two charter amendments to the mayor’s desk and gave preliminary approval to a third.

The council is deliberating on a slew of proposed changes to the city charter that would restructure local government. Young wrote a letter to Scott on Monday once again urging him to press pause on the measures, saying he thinks the council is rushing on consequential changes. He said the coronavirus pandemic has hampered the ability to get public input.

“To date, the process employed to review these amendments has been very disappointing,” Young wrote to Scott. The two men are running against each other for mayor in the June 2 Democratic primary.

He asked Scott to send all the charter amendment proposals back to the Equity & Structure Committee and “present a plan to ensure honest, transparent consideration of any changes to our City’s foundational document.”

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The council on Monday agreed to hold another committee hearing on a charter amendment that could give members more control over the city budgeting process.

But it pressed forward with a bill to give the City Council power to remove a mayor from office in certain circumstances of misconduct.

It also gave final approval to a measure that would require that the charter itself be reviewed every 10 years and another that would give the city auditor certain subpoena powers.

“There’s been plenty of opportunity for the public to comment and we have received plenty of public input,” said Councilman Bill Henry, who chairs the structure committee.

Any charter amendment ultimately must be approved by the voters. The deadline to put charter amendments on the November ballot is July.

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