In a recent forum on Maryland’s housing policies, the half-dozen Democratic candidates for governor in attendance were asked what they would do to address housing insecurity, particularly given diminished protections against evictions. There was at least one notable area of agreement: Every tenant facing possible eviction should have the opportunity to consult with an attorney. That doesn’t mean every tenant is in the right in housing disputes. nor every landlord in the wrong. But what it does recognize is that tenants, particularly those of modest means, don’t necessarily know their legal rights nor they have the resources to hire a lawyer to advise them in civil matters even as they face disastrous circumstances. We wouldn’t tolerate that injustice in criminal cases, we should not find it acceptable when families are facing homelessness.
What was apparent during Tuesday’s housing forum is that Maryland’s failure to level the legal playing field in rental disputes isn’t a matter of principle, so much as money. Earlier this year, the Maryland General Assembly enacted legislation providing counsel in potential cases of evictions but with a catch — it had to be funded. Companion legislation to provide just that through a higher surcharge on District Court filings would, among other things, finance the “Right to Counsel in Evictions Special Fund.” Unfortunately, the measure died in the session’s waning hours in the House of Delegates. The prospects for a revival in the 2022 legislative session are high, but there is an even better course of action that Gov. Larry Hogan can take right now: Allow millions of dollars in federal rent relief funds to be used to allow tenants to have legal counsel in evictions cases.
Maryland’s record with handling COVID-19 pandemic-related federal rent relief is not great. As of late August, the state had distributed just 15% of its total allocation of $401 million. And it’s not just the state Department of Housing and Community Development. The record for many local governments, including Baltimore City and Baltimore County, is nothing to brag about either. Under these circumstances, using the money so tenants can get a Maryland Legal Services Corp. lawyer would seem an obvious course of action. Maryland law now recognizes that tenants have a right to counsel, but it’s dependent on funding that does not currently exist. So the need is there and the unspent federal assistance is there. Why not link the two things? As one of the candidates observed at the Montgomery County Renters Alliance event, according to the state political news website Maryland Matters, Mr. Hogan can solve this problem with a “stroke of a pen.”
This isn’t the only form of help low-income tenants deserve, of course. The Baltimore City Council’s passage of a bill Monday that provides up to $2,000 for low-income families in need of a rental security deposit is helpful as well. The pandemic has stretched a lot of family finances beyond the breaking point. Providing this resources on the basis of need, while simultaneously protecting the rights of property owners, is a win-win that helps minimize some of the worst effects of what has been an economic disaster. We would also hope that well-meaning landlords take whatever steps are needed to avoid eviction. The Supreme Court’s decision last month to strike down a federal eviction moratorium continues to raise concerns that bad times are ahead. This is one occasion when a backlog in the civil docket may turn out to be a blessing in disguise — at least to the degree that it slows evictions.
There are other steps that might be taken, but some, such as the often-discussed rental control, are controversial and contain hidden costs and complications. Prevent landlords from raising rents to address demand and market conditions and you provide a powerful disincentive toward further investment in affordable housing. And it is this lack of affordable housing that is at the core of the problem. All the more reason why Governor Hogan and the General Assembly should be negotiating right now toward financing the right of counsel. It’s one thing for nonprofits and legal advocates to provide that service where possible, it’s quite another to guarantee it as a fundamental right. The former is helpful, the latter is what real justice (and human decency) requires.
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