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Providing lawyers to Baltimore tenants facing eviction could pay for itself | COMMENTARY

The one absolute requirement to comply with a stay-at-home or safer-at-home order is a home. Yet access to that very critical living necessity is in jeopardy for millions of Americans who’ve been forced out of work by coronavirus and now face mounting bills and past due rents. This is of particular concern in cities like Baltimore, where a recent study revealed a “massive racial disparity” in rental evictions, suggesting they’re not just a quality of life concern, but a civil rights issue.

The Evictions Study — performed by the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Washington — analyzed more than 9,000 city court cases from 2018 and 2019 to identify race, ethnic and gender disparities among expelled renters. Researchers found that those removed from their homes were far more likely to be black and female, and to live in Baltimore’s most segregated neighborhoods on the West side or in those looking to gentrify on the East side. The study concluded such evictions are “related to contemporary discrimination in housing access, displacement, and economic inequality linked to the legacies of segregation, policies, and practices directed against persons of color.”

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While evictions are suspended throughout Maryland right now for those who’ve suffered “substantial loss of income due to COVID-19,” that won’t last forever. Neither will the $13 million in federal coronavirus relief funding that Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young set aside for rental assistance. What happens when time and funds run out, but financial troubles persist?

In March, before layoffs proceeded en masse, Baltimore City’s overall unemployment rate was around 4.9% according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Then the pandemic caused the unemployment claims to spike 14-fold in two weeks, from 378 in the week ending March 7, to 5,392 in the week ending March 21. From March 1 through May 9, the most recent date for which city data is available, 56,699 Baltimore City residents filed unemployment claims; that’s 19.5% of the labor force. And the majority of those filing are likely African American; the unemployment rate for black people in the city, which is majority black, is typically double or more that of white people, as is the poverty rate.

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Given the sharp rise in unemployment claims, we’d expect to see a similar rise in eviction notices, which are already astronomical in Baltimore City, according to another study released this month. The Economic Impact of an Eviction Right to Counsel in Baltimore City, prepared by consulting firm Stout Risius Ross for the Public Justice Center and funded by the Abell Foundation, found that more eviction notices are filed each year in the city than we have rental units: 140,000 notices compared to 125,000 units.

You can’t hold a landlord accountable for their tenants’ unpaid rent, but given the disparities in who’s actually removed from a rental unit, it appears that the vulnerable are more likely to be targeted through legal action. Most eviction filings are made after just one month’s missed rent, and are often followed by late fees.

So what do we do about it? The two studies offer several policy recommendations we endorse, including requiring a landlord to send a pre-filing notice before taking steps to evict; preventing excessive rate hikes based on tenant income; and revising inclusionary housing laws to encourage more affordable units. Perhaps most important, however, is a proposal to provide lawyers to tenants who don’t have representation, which is to say nearly all of them. Roughly 96% of landlords in the rental court cases studied in Baltimore had representation, while only 1% of the renters did. The lawyer recommendation comes with a hefty price tag — $5.7 million for 7,000 tenants, according to the Stout study — but it will save more than six times that in assistance that the state and city provide to aid the evicted if a resolution other than removal is found. Given the stakes, it seems a no brainer.

When asked about the recommendation, a spokesman for Mayor Young said the administration is too focused on “addressing the acute need that we have now with COVID-19” to “hypothesize what’s going to happen a year from now, two years from now, three years from now.”

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That’s shortsighted. The problems created by coronavirus today aren’t going to disappear tomorrow — especially if we’re not planning for them now. The consequences of losing a home are devastating even without a pandemic in place. Baltimore must do all it can to help struggling residents uphold their responsibilities as renters.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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