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Anne Arundel creates legal aid program for Annapolis housing authority residents facing eviction

More than 300 Annapolis housing authority residents who are behind on rent could soon get legal help to avoid being evicted, thanks to a new Anne Arundel County program announced this week.

Arundel Community Development Services is contracting with Civil Justice Inc., a Maryland legal services organization, to give legal assistance and financial counseling, among other resources, to residents of the Housing Authority of the City of Annapolis. County Executive Steuart Pittman announced the program Tuesday during his weekly news conference.

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The program is critical to preventing a humanitarian crisis created by so many city residents being evicted at once, Pittman said. “These residents are our neighbors, and we cannot allow them to become homeless.”

Melissa Maddox-Evans, the housing authority’s executive director, has been sounding the alarm for months as the number of housing authority residents who had fallen behind on rent during the pandemic soared to more than 200 for most of last year. A potential wave of mass evictions has been avoided in recent months as an eviction moratorium has been extended until March 31. County officials have sought to give rental assistance to residents, but public housing tenants are not eligible for the program because their rent is already subsidized by the federal government.

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The initiative is called the Renter Eviction Avoidance Program and will be funded with $106,000 in county eviction prevention funds administered by Arundel Community Development Services.

The initiative is unlike anything Civil Justice Inc. has previously undertaken. The organization is in the midst of training its staff in public housing policy and hiring a community liaison who will work directly with residents, Executive Director Sarah Coffey Bowes said.

“We want to come at this from all angles because it’s not always about just housing insecurity,” Bowes said. “There are a lot of things, particularly right now, driving housing instability.”

There isn’t one solution that will fit all of the residents, which means case management and individual counseling will be key to making the program work, said Kathy Koch, who directs the non-profit arm of the county government.

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“We probably have 300 different situations,” Koch said. “We’re realistic. We may not save 300 families, but I keep saying that if we get to a half, I’m going to declare victory.”

The program only applies to Annapolis public housing residents. Anne Arundel County’s public housing authority has only had about six residents who fell into rent arrears and were given the resources they needed to catch up, Koch said.

Maddox-Evans and her staff have sought to reduce the number of tenants in arrears by offering repayment plans and extensive outreach efforts. In the last month, the agency has started to see their total outstanding debt among residents decrease by about $80,000, but it is still almost $430,000, Maddox-Evans said. About 70 families have entered repayment plans, an encouraging sign that residents are beginning to respond to outreach efforts by housing authority staff.

The county partnership is “a more holistic approach” to the housing authority’s rent crisis, Maddox-Evans said during Tuesday’s Board of Directors meeting.

“Not just dealing with the outstanding rent but to help sit down with residents to talk about how they got there,” she said. “What are some of the barriers, what are some of the issues? If they are having issues with resolving any disagreements with HACA with regard to the amount they owed, that they felt that they had someone to assist them through that conversation.”

She continued: “We certainly support any program that would be there to assist the residents, or to provide any services to them, and particularly to provide them with an understanding of the legal nature of a contractual relationship with the Housing Authority.”

Meanwhile, a group of churches and other charitable organizations, including Annapolis Rotary, have come forward to offer donations to residents who need it, Maddox-Evans said.

Pittman credited Alderman DaJuan Gay, D-Ward 6, for helping spur the project. Gay reached out to the county executive for help last year as hundreds of public housing residents, many of whom reside in Gay’s ward, couldn’t pay their rent.

“I thought it was genius,” Gay said of when he heard what the county was planning. “Because the most important issue for tenants is to know their legal rights and the legal process. That’s a huge part of it.”

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