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Op-ed

Baltimore must get rental assistance directly to tenants in need | GUEST COMMENTARY

Baltimore City’s leadership, particularly as the Omicron infections rates surge, must focus on supporting the majority of residents in need of dire assistance: renters. As outlined by Baltimore Renters United during our news conference on Jan. 4, 2022, hundreds of evictions are currently scheduled, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Indeed, 23,228 Baltimore families — the vast majority of whom are Black — are behind on rent, thus facing possible eviction according to the latest census data.

You may be wondering how this can be the case when Baltimore City received $42.1 million for eviction protection from the December 2020 Consolidated Appropriations Act. Part of the unfortunate answer to this question is that landlords are refusing the cold, hard cash that the Baltimore City Community Action Partnership (BCCAP) rental assistance program is offering them on behalf of tenants who are behind on rent because of the pandemic. Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott’s office also has failed to create a public system for getting rent money directly into the pockets of tenants at risk of eviction. And the sheriff’s office is already moving forward with evictions, amid COVID positivity rates nearly three times higher than any point during the Maryland eviction moratorium, which ran from March 2020 to August 15, 2021.

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Real people experience the violence of these administrative choices. Just one example is Ms. Smith, a Baltimore renter and client of the Homeless Persons Representation Project, who had her hours cut at work during the pandemic. She had to quit completely when her child was hospitalized after contracting COVID. She first came to court with a failure to pay rent case in April 2021, where she was lucky enough to be connected to a lawyer and received support applying for rental assistance. Despite countless calls and emails from her lawyer to the city, Ms. Smith did not hear back about her rental assistance application until the morning she was scheduled to return to court in October for a hearing on the eviction — nearly six months after she applied. Despite the notice that she had been approved for 12 months of back rent, her landlord refused to accept the rental assistance. It took another court case to convince her landlord to accept the cash assistance. While Ms. Smith is still in her home at the moment, the cruel irony is that she still faces nine additional failure to pay rent cases — for rent that became due after the 12 months of rental assistance — and she is still at risk of eviction.

The most painful truth about this eviction epidemic is that Baltimore City has the power to stop it, and the result of the city’s failure to do so is a devastating echo of the racist housing policies of years past that have created the conditions permitting the highest precarity for Black renters we are seeing today. Baltimore City is permitted, according to federal guidelines, to disburse up to 18 months of back rent directly to tenants so that they can work with their landlords to pay owed rent or find a new place to live if the landlord refuses to take the money. The city could also expedite full investment in the currently unfunded tenant right to counsel passed in December 2020 so that all tenants can have access to an attorney. Instead, the city is only distributing up to 12 months of back rent, and insists upon paying only landlords, while other jurisdictions in Maryland (including Baltimore County and Prince George’s County) are paying tenants directly. To be fair, the city has stated privately that it intends to implement these proposed changes, but the deadline for that promise has drifted from Jan. 2022 now to March 2022.

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The pandemic has stretched over 20 months and vulnerable tenants need help now. Ms. Smith’s overwhelming stress, countless trips to rent court, and hours of advocacy through a lawyer all could have been avoided if Baltimore City’s rental assistance program immediately adopted these basic regulatory changes, which are explicitly permitted by federal regulations. The city must issue an eviction moratorium, and it is far past time to get the full 18 months of rental assistance funding directly to tenants in need, with full legal representation, so that they can recover from this hellish pandemic along with the rest of the city.

Detrese Dowridge (tynikadowridge@gmail.com) is the president of the Right to Housing Alliance and a member of the Baltimore Renters United steering committee.


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