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Howard County Council bill would provide rental protection for residents, businesses amid coronavirus pandemic

Howard County Council Chairwoman Deb Jung, Vice Chairwoman Liz Walsh and Councilwoman Christiana Mercer Rigby filed emergency legislation last week to protect and stabilize the rent of thousands of households and local businesses in the county.

The Rental Protection and Stability Act would prevent residential and commercial landlords from increasing rents during the state of the emergency due to the coronavirus pandemic and for up to three months after it ends, the Democrats said. There are approximately 23,600 rental units in Howard County, according to a 2018 Howard County Rental Survey.

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The legislation also would prohibit landlords from decreasing promised services, like water or electricity, or from terminating existing leases, according to Walsh.

“It seemed like everyone said they were going to do something, but no one was actually doing it,” Walsh said, referring to rental relief during the health emergency. “We’re just saying in this limited window the situation can’t be worse than it already is.”

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Less than a month ago, Maryland Republican Gov. Larry Hogan announced a financial relief plan that included a possible 90 days’ deferral or even forbearance of mortgage payments.

“For those of our constituents obligated to make monthly mortgage payments, Gov. Hogan’s announcement of the lenders’ initiative to temporarily defer or forbear those payments came as welcome relief,” Walsh said in a statement. “But, to date, there’s no corollary directly benefiting renters.”

On Thursday, the same day Walsh and Jung filed their legislation, Montgomery County was voting on its COVID-19 Renter Relief Act. Montgomery County Councilman Will Jawando saw the lack of protection for renters in his county and introduced the bill. Jawando’s legislation was the baseline for the Howard County Rental Protection and Stability Act, according to Walsh and Jung.

Jawando, a Democrat, said he had received calls from constituents who were getting rent renewal notices that had their rents increasing, in some cases by significant amounts. About one-third of Montgomery County residents are renters, according to Jawando.

“I got a number of these cases. I looked into it and spoke to some of [constituents] and decided we needed to prohibit [rent increases],” Jawando said. “People are struggling enough during this time to pay their rent, let alone paying for an increase.”

The legislation the Montgomery County Council ultimately passed prevents landlords from increasing rent beyond the county’s Department of Housing and Community Affairs’ guidelines of 2.6% for residential tenants for a period of 180 days after the COVID-19 public health emergency ends.

“We’ve never had any rent stabilization for any reason and now we do countywide, so that is a good thing,” Jawando said. “[The COVID-19 Renter Relief Act] will get rid of the more egregious increases.”

Montgomery County’s bill only addressed residential tenants, not commercial ones, a group Walsh hopes the Howard County Council will agree to include.

“If we’re trying to keep our economy going and we want these small businesses to return, giving them the best shot to do so is important,” Jawando said.

Walsh said watching the process of Jawando’s legislation in Montgomery County helped guide how she, Rigby and Jung structured their bill. For example, Walsh included mobile home park residents as well.

“I don’t doubt that there are many landlords who have passed along that relief and more to their own tenants, but I worry that there are other landlords who won’t, and some even who might seek to take economic advantage of their tenants even as evictions temporarily are stayed,” Walsh said.

A virtual public hearing for the Rental Protection and Stability Act is set for 7 p.m. May 18; the earliest the council could vote on the legislation is June 1.

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