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With Carroll County tenants falling behind on rent amid pandemic, nonprofit worries it won’t be able to help all

Early results of a landlord survey show Carroll County residents claim they are falling behind on rent due to the coronavirus pandemic, and while the full scope of the problem likely won’t be known for months, a local shelter manager fears her agency doesn’t have enough funding and beds to help everyone.

Facing job losses, reduced working hours and illness, tenants in Carroll County are falling behind on rent due to difficulties brought about by the ongoing pandemic of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

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Gov. Larry Hogan acted in March to prohibit evictions during the state of emergency, but that moratorium ended July 25. Now, the District Court of Maryland may process warrants of restitution for failure to pay rent, but only for cases that were pending or already authorized before the courts shut down March 16. New failure to pay rent cases won’t be set for trial until Aug. 31, according to a July 17 letter from the District Court’s office of the chief judge.

To get ahead of the expected onslaught of cases, the Human Services Programs of Carroll County Inc. (HSP), a nonprofit community action agency based in Westminster, is surveying landlords to anticipate needs among the community.

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HSP plans to hire an extra staff member to specifically focus on COVID-19 relief, and the nonprofit is also looking to temporarily open a third shelter.

“We’re doing our best to plan,” said Jennifer Graybill, director of shelter and housing for HSP, but “it is a bit of a wait and see.”

In a typical year, Graybill said, HSP helps prevent evictions for a little over 100 people. HSP gets local and state funding annually to prevent evictions and is supported by a number of faith-based groups, according to Graybill.

As of July 30, Graybill said 105 landlords representing 1,601 units responded to HSP’s survey, which launched July 20. Of those units, landlords reported 125 tenants, or 7%, claimed to be behind on rent due to COVID-19, Graybill said. She acknowledged the claims had not been verified by HSP.

While Graybill feels that is a relatively low number, what surprised her is the amount of rent those tenants owe. Thus far, of those 125 tenants, 33% have not paid rent in the past three months and 25% have not paid in the past four months or more, Graybill said, and about half of the tenants each owe $3,000 or more.

HSP received about $120,000 through the federal Emergency Solutions Grant that can be used to provide assistance to people facing eviction due to COVID-19, according to Scott Yard, executive director of HSP.

Anticipating that the number of tenants behind on rent will be more than what the early results of their survey show, Graybill worries whether their emergency funds will be enough to help them. She said, “$100,000 isn’t going to be enough to remedy that.”

Graybill said conducting this four-question survey, which is still open and can be found on HSP’s Facebook page, will collect important data that can help it apply for possible future funding.

HSP also has about $100,000 to help people facing eviction in general, not specific to COVID-19, according to Yard.

The survey has thus far captured a fraction of the number of landlords in Carroll County.

Sharon Hooper, vice president of the Carroll County Landlord Association and a property manager for 25 years, estimates there are 400 landlords in the county. About 150 belong to the association, according to association President Judy Baxter. The association exists to help people become better landlords, Baxter said, and they welcome new members.

Hooper said she personally hasn’t had many tenants affected by COVID-19. She referred a few of them, who lost income after their hours were cut, to HSP for help.

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Baxter said HSP and the association work together to find housing for tenants and work out ways to pay rent. Baxter said HSP’s survey was sent to the association’s members.

Most landlords Baxter knows would rather work with tenants who are behind on rent rather than go through the eviction process and seek new tenants, she said.

Hooper feels similarly. “I would prefer to work with them and get them back on track, especially if they’ve been tenants prior to this and haven’t had a lot of problems,” she said.

Keith Reed, also a member of the landlord association, rents out commercial and residential properties in Carroll County. A landlord for 41 years, he said many landlords try to be understanding and find a payment solution that will work for everyone.

“It’s a business, but you still have heart,” he said.

However, Reed feels frustrated when he sees lawmakers push to keep tenants in their homes without paying. When he hears that, he thinks about mortgages, insurance and tax bills.

“The landlords have bills also,” he said.

HSP plans for temporary adult shelter

In Graybill’s mind, the worst-case scenario is an increased number of people who are homeless in Carroll County.

“Our goal is to make sure we can keep people housed,” she said.

HSP operates two shelters, one for families and one for adults. Due to social distancing requirements, the adult shelter isn’t operating at full capacity, according to Graybill. In the family shelter, multiple people from one family can be together in the same room, but in the adult shelter there are typically multiple beds in one room occupied by people who wouldn’t normally live together.

The shelter holds about 80 beds and is a little less than one-third full now, Graybill said. Going beyond half capacity would make it difficult to safely distance residents from one another, she said, so HSP secured funding to set up a second temporary shelter for adults.

Graybill said they’re actively looking for a site to place the shelter. She’s hoping it will ready by Oct. 1, before the cold settles in and the need for warm beds increases.

The HSP main office building is at 10 Distillery Drive in Westminster. Those with questions about rent assistance can call the office at 410-857-2999.

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