COVID-19 has lit a torch on the systemic social and economic inequities faced by communities of color with respect to health care, livable wages and affordable, safe housing. Congress has failed to prioritize housing stability and pass adequate relief measures for tenants facing evictions while eviction protections in Maryland and around the country have expired.
Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a “Temporary Halt in Residential Evictions to Prevent the Further Spread of COVID-19” Order. The CDC order is intended to provide broad relief from evictions until December 31. The order highlights the reality that housing is health care: “Housing stability helps protect public health because homelessness increases the likelihood of individuals moving into close quarters in congregate settings, such as homeless shelters, which then puts individuals at higher risk to COVID-19.”
While we’re grateful the CDC acknowledges the connection between public health and eviction, the CDC order has limitations. Tenants must actively provide a “declaration” to their landlord that they meet five criteria to be eligible for protection. And the Maryland Judiciary’s guidance on the CDC order will limit its effectiveness further by instructing trial courts to proceed with litigation of each eviction complaint — forcing tenants to defend their cases at court during the pandemic — and only to hold off on the eviction judgment itself until Jan. 1, 2021.
Much more needs to be done to prevent a tsunami of evictions in the form of a comprehensive residential eviction moratorium and meaningful rent relief. Without government action following the CDC’s Order, 30 million to 40 million tenants nationwide continue to be at risk of losing their homes. This burden falls heaviest on Black and brown working communities — with half of Black and Latinx households unable to pay July’s rent compared to a quarter of white renters. The CDC reports that the Black and Indigenous population have infection rates five times and four times, respectively, higher than the white population. Eviction has always been a threat to public health. The cocktail of housing insecurity and high infection rates among minority communities may prove to be lethal.
In Baltimore, families find themselves at the mercy of the court in eviction cases without legal representation all the time. While 96% of landlords are represented, only 1% of tenants have counsel. Without an attorney, the chances you can receive a fair outcome in a wrongful eviction case are slim. Unfortunately, these statistics are, once again, not Maryland-specific. Across the country, fewer than 10% of tenants, on average, are represented, despite landlords being represented 90% of the time.
The solution to this crisis is simple and cost-effective. First, Maryland should enact a broad eviction moratorium that does not depend on filing declarations or litigating cases during the pandemic. Some states have continued their eviction moratoriums — with some municipalities even extending through the rest of 2020. Other governors, however, including the Hogan administration, debate whether children should continue learning from home or in school buildings and fail to acknowledge that many of those children will be homeless if a true eviction moratorium is not reinstated.
Second, provide rent relief. Elected officials have not dedicated adequate resources to alleviate housing instability in a meaningful way. Maryland alone has a $370 million rental delinquency and 274,000 households unable to pay the rent and facing possible eviction. Housing advocates in Maryland have requested $175 million in rental assistance from the state’s $1.3 billion in federal CARES Act funds granted to alleviate the economic pressures crushing Maryland families. The governor has allocated a meager $30 million for rental assistance, a little over $109 per household facing eviction.
Finally, establish a right to counsel in eviction cases. A report by Stout Risius Ross found that by investing $5.7 million annually in tenant representation, the government would save or avoid $35.6 million in the costs of homeless shelters, emergency room visits, homeless student transportation costs, lost school funding and foster care costs linked to eviction. Access to an attorney dramatically reduces evictions and ensures that families are not put onto the streets. In the three years that New York City has had a right to counsel, evictions have dropped 29% in those ZIP codes where the right has been implemented, and 84% of represented tenants have been able to remain in their homes. House Speaker Adrienne Jones has called for enacting a right to counsel in eviction cases and providing for meaningful rent relief. We look forward to working with her on this fundamental housing lifeline.
We are facing a crisis within a crisis. The CDC order is not enough. It is time for Maryland and other states to implement real solutions that tackle the root causes of social and economic injustice. COVID-19 has shown how paramount equitable housing policies are to promote public health and address racial disparities, and it is time to act. We can implement cost-effective solutions that should have happened decades ago and rebuild our economy.
Charisse Lue (LueC@publicjustice.org) is an attorney with the Public Justice Center and Tisha Guthrie (firstname.lastname@example.org) represents Baltimore Renters United and Bolton House Tenants' Association.