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Baltimore County renters could see relief under council proposal, administration programs

Baltimore County officials estimate the county could see as many as 24,000 eviction filings in a single month once courts get up to speed processing claims, so county officials are setting aside assistance money and the County Council is considering a bill to protect renters during the pandemic.

Maryland courts have renewed processing warrants for failure to pay rent since reopening in July. Terry Hickey, Baltimore County’s deputy director of housing and community development, said 140,000 residents have been laid off since the pandemic started.

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"Ultimately, this could lead to as many as 8,000 families at risk of losing housing in Baltimore County,” Hickey said.

To prepare, Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr., a Democrat, has asked the council to approve an application for $3 million in federal relief funds for the county’s rental assistance program. Approximately 500 households could be served with these funds, according to county documents.

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The county also is redirecting $800,000 to future eviction prevention efforts, spokesman Sean Naron said, and the county will distribute $2 million to as many as 545 families through nonprofit partners beginning in early October.

So far, Baltimore County’s Eviction Prevention Program has provided $1.2 million to 485 households, Naron said. The county is providing funding to families in “a phased approach” to make sure assistance is available in the fall as rent court hearings resume, he said.

Meanwhile, Baltimore County Councilman Izzy Patoka wants the council to pass legislation limiting how much landlords can increase rent during the coronavirus pandemic.

Patoka, a Pikesville Democrat, introduced legislation that would prevent landlords from raising rent by more than 2.07% during the coronavirus state of emergency or for 180 days after the emergency ends. Landlords who already notified residents about a rent increase would have to ensure the amount doesn’t exceed that limit.

Patoka said his proposal is modeled after similar laws enacted in Montgomery County this year. Patoka wants to ensure rent increases are one less thing residents have to worry about during a state of emergency or “catastrophic economic circumstances,” such as long periods of unemployment.

The legislation would require landlords to provide renters written notice of a rent increase several weeks prior to the increase going into effect. Landlords still would be barred from imposing more than one rent increase on a tenant in a 12-month period.

Under Patoka’s legislation, landlords also would be prohibited from reporting delinquencies to a credit bureau for any rent owed during an emergency and for a period of 180 days after the emergency ends. Landlords would be required to give renters information on where to get information on rental assistance.

Patoka’s proposed law would prohibit court judgments in favor of landlords for nonpayment of rent complaints brought during an emergency unless landlords can prove they complied with the legislation. Landlords also would be barred from charging or collecting late fees or court fees from tenants as well.

According to the Maryland Multi-Housing Association, which represents owners and managers of rental housing, Maryland’s rent delinquency has doubled from an average of 8% to 10% to 20% during the pandemic. Adam Skolnik, the association’s executive director, said most landlords in the association are not charging late fees for rent, and some are forgiving tenants for past due rent if the tenant gives up the housing.

The housing association is “vehemently against" Patoka’s bill, Skolnik said, calling it "cumbersome” and confusing.

Baltimore City along with Baltimore and Prince George’s counties collectively saw, on average, up to 150,000 eviction filings a year pre-COVID, Skolnik said, so he called Baltimore County’s eviction estimates “made up numbers” because “no one really knows exactly what’s going to happen.”

“Rental property owner’s expenses don’t stop during a pandemic, and they don’t stop increasing during a pandemic," Skolnik said. "What the councilman is trying to do to help renters is admirable, but we just think this bill is overreaching.”

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Hickey, the county’s deputy housing director, said his eviction estimates are based on initial predictions of what could happen “in the first few months” after the moratorium ends.

“We don’t know of that group how many actually will, but everything we can do — with the time we’ve been given thanks to the CDC moratorium [on evictions] and other effects — we need to take advantage of to try to get money out to landlords, get tenants up to date and keep them out of court,” Hickey said.

Scott Gottbreht, associate vice president of homeless services at United Way of Central Maryland, has told the county council “housing is definitely the most pressing need” in the county based on calls the organization receives.

Patoka’s legislation would empower the county to deny, suspend or revoke a rental housing license for any the landlord who fails to comply. If it’s passed by the council, the legislation would go into effect Oct. 19 and be applied retroactively from March 5.

Calling the retroactive effect of Patoka’s bill “patently unconstitutional,” Skolnik said 25 landlords are currently in federal court fighting Baltimore City, Salisbury and Howard County on similar issues with retroactive clauses.

Skolnik urged the council to follow Anne Arundel County’s lead by prohibiting landlords from raising rent by more than 3%, but he opposed the notice provisions and the 6-month delay in rent increases after the pandemic in Patoka’s bill.

Patoka said he expects “a significant amount of testimony” on his bill during the public hearing scheduled at the council’s 4 p.m. Sept. 29 work session. The vote on his bill is slated for Oct. 5.

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