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Politics

Maryland is running out of emergency rental assistance funding

Deborah Jennings, who has lived in her East Baltimore rowhouse on Aisquith Street for 12 years, is facing eviction in January. Jennings, 65, lives with her miniature Yorkshire, Deora.

Housing advocates, politicians and nonprofit organizations are raising the alarm that Maryland is running out of federal eviction relief funding and calling on the state to put up its own money.

When Congress passed major spending bills in response to the coronavirus pandemic, it included nearly $50 billion in emergency rental assistance for states, counties, cities and other large jurisdictions. That money went to tenants who lost income during the pandemic and had fallen behind on rent and sometimes directly to landlords preparing to evict tenants for nonpayment.

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Maryland received about $750 million in emergency rental assistance funds, and some say it successfully prevented a wave of evictions predicted early in the pandemic. As of June 30, more than 82,000 Maryland households had received emergency rental assistance, according to state data.

Now, as in other states, that money is running out, and there’s no indication the federal government will be doling out more.

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On Tuesday, a coalition concerned about the dwindling funds sent a letter to Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, warning that tens of thousands of Maryland families will be evicted in 2023.

Deborah Jennings, who has lived in her East Baltimore rowhouse on Aisquith Street for 12 years, is facing eviction in January. Jennings, a 65-year-old widow on disability, lost her job at the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Maryland emergency rental assistance is running out, and she is uncertain whether her application for assistance will be successful. Jennings said her neighbors look out for her.

Dozens of organizations, four lawmakers and the executives of Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Howard and Montgomery counties, as well as Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott, signed the letter. They asked Hogan to allocate emergency funding now to keep the program afloat in 2023. The letter, which was also sent to top state lawmakers, said $175 million should be set aside in the next fiscal year for emergency rental assistance, estimating that it would prevent the evictions of about 17,000 households.

“These hardworking families are experiencing new or ongoing losses of income due to the continuing volatility in parts of the economy stemming from the pandemic,” they wrote. “This financial turmoil is compounded by high inflation and soaring rents.”

Hogan’s spokesman Michael Ricci said local jurisdictions should be preparing for the end of the federal emergency rental assistance money — and gave no indication that the governor would step in with state money.

“We have been anticipating the wind-down of these federal funds for quite some time, which is why officials from the Department of Housing and Community Development have reached out to local jurisdictions to talk through various funding options that would leverage other federal relief programs,” Ricci said.

If Maryland were to establish its own emergency rental assistance fund, it might be the first state to do so. Lauren Lowery, director of housing and community development at the National League of Cities, said she was unaware of any other state trying to start its own fund to supplant the dwindling federal funds, though Wisconsin was creating an eviction relief program for veterans.

“Does this policy make sense? Absolutely,” said Lowery, noting that evictions are still happening across the country.

Matt Hill, an attorney with the Public Justice Center in Baltimore, called the emergency rental assistance funds a “vital lifeline” for people still reeling from the pandemic. Baltimore has a court docket devoted solely to evictions for nonpayment of rent. It operates every weekday, morning and afternoon, going through hundreds of cases a day.

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Most tenants have a week’s notice to appear in court and have little understanding of how the legal system works, Hill said. A majority of his organization’s clients are Black women, and Hill framed the emergency rental assistance as a racial justice issue.

According to the most recent data from the U.S. Treasury Department, roughly two-thirds of the Maryland households that have received emergency rental assistance funds are Black. More than half the households are considered extremely low income.

Nonprofits, local jurisdictions and the state government have spent two years setting up the infrastructure to help the state’s most vulnerable avoid being evicted, so, Hill said, don’t stop funding the program now.

“We don’t want to go back to a pre-pandemic 20,000 evictions per year in Maryland where there’s just no financial resources to assist people who are living on the edge,” Hill said.

In Baltimore, much of the federal rental assistance money is distributed through a program in the mayor’s office called the Baltimore City Community Action Partnership.

Deborah Jennings, who has lived in her East Baltimore rowhouse on Aisquith Street for 12 years, is facing eviction in January. As she looks at family pictures, Jennings said, “So much love that is still in this house, and to lose it. … I don’t even want to think about it.”

Deborah Jennings said she tried applying for help through the partnership in the summer but found the system confusing and is unsure whether her application was ever accepted. The 65-year-old widow lives with her Yorkshire terrier De’Ora in an Aisquith Street rowhouse near Greenmount Cemetery in the East Baltimore neighborhood of Oliver. In 2010, an injury forced her to retire early, she said, but in late 2019 and faced with mounting bills, Jennings got a seasonal job at Target, then got a job tutoring children in Baltimore City schools.

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Then the pandemic hit.

Jennings said she lost her job and since lost her unemployment benefits and is now about $2,700 behind in rent. She feels a deep depression that reminds her of when her husband died in 2007.

“I’m trying to keep it together, you know? I have to keep it together,” Jennings said. “I’m leaning on God again to get me through this.”

Jack BeVier is a partner at the Dominion Group, a Baltimore-based firm that is one of the city’s biggest landlords. Jennings is not a tenant of his company, but BeVier said her experience is not unique.

When tenants in Baltimore apply for emergency rental assistance funding, BeVier said it can take six months or more for the city to approve the application and release the funds. Sometimes tenants accrue more debt during that time, he said, and meanwhile the landlord isn’t getting paid that entire time, putting financial pressure on them to evict the tenant.

“You’re trying to run a business that doesn’t have any revenue,” BeVier said.

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Like tenant advocates, BeVier also thinks that more rental assistance for people in need is a good idea, but BeVier stressed that distributing those funds efficiently is equally important. He praised the United Way of Central Maryland, which partnered with state and local governments to distribute emergency rental assistance. BeVier said United Way has often been able to disburse funds in a matter of weeks.

Rather than solicit applications from individual tenants, United Way identified ZIP codes with high rates of evictions and COVID infections and started approaching landlords, according to Scott Gottbreht, the organization’s vice president of housing.

Gottbreht compared it to painting a room — both a brush and a roller are needed. While cities and counties were using a brush to reach the nooks and corners, United Way wanted to be a roller, covering big sections quickly.

At one point during the pandemic, Gottbreht said United Way cut a $1 million check using the federal funds to cover the rents owed by 105 people in a single apartment complex.

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The coronavirus pandemic has been much longer and more severe than many initially predicted, Gottbreht said. Without continued funding, Gottbreht thinks a long-predicted wave of evictions will finally hit.

“The money’s drying up because I don’t think anyone realized how long this would go on,” Gottbreht said. “What’s been keeping that tsunami from making landfall is rental assistance.”

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As for Jennings, she would like to pay back her landlord. She has lived in her home since 2010 and can’t fathom trying to move.

“This is my home, the house where I shared the birth of my grandkids, first barbecues, first birthdays. So much love that is still in this house, and to lose it … I don’t even want to think about it,” she said.

Jennings said she would like to work again, but it’s hard to find a job because she walks with a cane and has arthritis in both knees.

On Wednesday, she will spend her last $4 on bus fare to go to court for her eviction trial, Jennings said.

“We need assistance. We need the system to be more easy to apply [for]. We need the money. We need the help,” Jennings said. “We are human beings. We’re not lazy. Right now, we’re just still struggling.”


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