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Baltimore tenant protections take effect, requiring ‘just cause’ before eviction

A Baltimore bill that provides renters with more safeguards from eviction went into effect Monday, a piece of legislation intended to combat a potential housing crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

The “just cause” bill requires landlords to provide a codified reason — one outlined and defined by city officials — for not renewing a lease when a tenant’s lease expires. The legislation was filed following a rise in landlords using alternative means to remove tenants. It was enacted without Mayor Brandon Scott’s signature.

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In a July 19 letter to the City Council, Scott said he had reservations about the bill because parts of it conflict with state law.

“There are doubts about the City’s authority to implement and enforce this bill’s provisions locally due to the significant state law governing this subject,” Scott said in the letter.

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The Baltimore City Law Department, in a February letter, said state law gives landlords in Baltimore City the right to terminate a year-long tenancy with 90 days’ notice and a shorter time period for other types of tenancies. It declined to approve the bill for “form and legal sufficiency.”

Still, City Councilman Antonio “Tony” Glover, the bill’s lead sponsor, called the passage a win, and said he introduced the legislation in January after finding out the state and federal moratorium on evictions due to COVID-19 did not protect all tenants from losing their homes.

“When I learned that landlords found a loophole in the eviction moratorium and were kicking tenants behind on their rent out of their homes when their leases expired, I stepped up alongside housing advocates to formulate a plan to protect them,” he said in a statement.

Baltimore landlords now must provide renters with the opportunity to renew their leases unless a “good cause” exception exists. Those exceptions include a “substantial” breach of lease; the landlord wanting to recover the property for a relative as a primary residence; the landlord wanting to permanently remove the property from the rental market; or the landlord needing to conduct repairs that cannot be done in otherwise occupied properties.

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Landlords also must offer tenants a chance to renew their leases at least 75 days before it expires. The lease cannot be subject to a “retaliatory” increase in the rent or change the previous lease terms significantly, according to the bill.

Carol Ott, tenant advocacy director at the Fair Housing Action Center of Maryland, said the bill will help correct the power imbalance between landlords and tenants.

“It’s never made any sense to me that someone could be thrown out of their home and not be given a reason why,” she said. “It’s a good foundation.”

City Council President Nick J. Mosby, one of the bill’s co-sponsors, said the legislation will protect the city’s most vulnerable residents from losing their homes as the economic effects of the pandemic continue to affect their abilities to pay rent on time.

“This new protection is critical for residents who are being evicted when their leases expire in the waning months of the pandemic,” Mosby said. “The Council looks forward to working with the administration on the remaining legislation in this package to offer emergency security deposit relief by providing up to $2,000 in grants to get renters into safe, stable and high quality housing.”

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