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Legislative report: Struggling Maryland families need more assistance with rent | COMMENTARY

Esmeralda Morales, Hyattsville, joins tenants and advocates in a march last week from Annapolis District Court to the Governor's Mansion to urge Gov. Larry Hogan to protect renters in Maryland from eviction.
Esmeralda Morales, Hyattsville, joins tenants and advocates in a march last week from Annapolis District Court to the Governor's Mansion to urge Gov. Larry Hogan to protect renters in Maryland from eviction. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun)

I know of a renter in Baltimore who is two months behind in rent and has diabetes among many underlying health conditions. Reliant on Social Security disability and income from her college-aged daughter who is unable to find employment, she faces a landlord who regularly texts and calls demanding the rent.

He wants to enter the apartment and, in addition to feeling threatened that she’s going to be evicted, the woman is stressed that she’ll be exposed to COVID-19. She struggles with the impossible dilemma of having to choose between paying her $1,200 rent or her $400 monthly insulin bill, risking eviction in the midst of a global health pandemic.

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The day that COVID protections for renters would end has been looming on the horizon for thousands of Marylanders, fearful that their lives would be upended by the rescission of federal and state safety nets that have been critical to keeping them afloat during the pandemic. On July 25, the federal government’s moratorium on evictions, late fees and penalties was lifted and 670,000 Marylanders no longer receive the weekly $600 supplemental unemployment benefit from the federal government, and the Maryland judiciary’s stay for residential evictions was lifted.

Many Marylanders are struggling, especially Black and brown communities. As of July 15, nearly 490,000 Marylanders have applied for unemployment insurance. Between March and April applications to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program increased 400%. Over 81,000 Marylanders have tested positive for the coronavirus, which has had a disproportionate effect on the Black and Latinx communities. So it is not surprising that two recent national reports — from the Aspen Institute and consulting firm Stout — indicate that roughly 300,000 Maryland households are at risk of eviction for fear of being unable to pay rent.

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Over the past few months I have led a work group of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, which met (virtually) with experts and housing professionals about the impact of the coronavirus on residential housing in Maryland. On Monday, we issued a report outlining our findings as well as a series of recommendations about how to address what we believe is an impending crisis. While our list is not exhaustive, these policy changes could mitigate, and perhaps even eliminate, material risks in health and safety to some of the most vulnerable among us.

Landlords and tenant advocates came to consensus on two of our most important recommendations: there should be a robust and transparent publicly supported rental assistance program; and landlord-tenant litigants should have access to publicly funded legal services.

While we were very pleased that the governor announced a $30 million rental assistance program, it is clear to us that a much more robust program is needed. In just the four days that Baltimore County’s eviction prevention program was open in June, nearly 1,500 applications were submitted for phase 1 of the program, which officials hoped could reach 800 households. In Montgomery County, 1,200 households applied for rental assistance, with 1,500 on the waiting list. This pattern has been repeated in jurisdictions throughout the state.

A majority of the work group also recommends that the governor continue to maintain his executive orders imposing a moratorium on evictions and preventing the disconnection of essential utilities including gas, electricity, water and internet. We also believe he should implement an order preventing the accumulation of late fees for failure to pay rent. We call on the judiciary to create a legal services pilot program and explore expanding its mediation services for certain landlord tenant matters. In addition, we are asking our federal representatives for recommendations on how to protect tenants from receiving negative consumer reports because of a failure to pay rent due to income loss during the pandemic.

In March 2020 the governor declared a state of emergency and a catastrophic health emergency that he has rightfully extended. The governor, public health officials and other elected officials have repeatedly implored Marylanders to stay at home and to venture out into the community with care and only if necessary. As policymakers, it is our duty and moral responsibility to support and implement policies to ensure that ALL Marylanders have the ability to keep themselves and their families safe. Having a home in which to stay is an absolutely critical piece of the public health crisis facing each of our communities and our state. We owe struggling families no less.

Sen. Shelly Hettleman (shellyhettleman.com) represents District 11 in the Maryland General Assembly.

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