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Maryland slow to disburse pandemic rental relief, state data shows; Baltimore City, County trail neighboring governments

Maryland has distributed only 15% of the funding from a federal program dedicated to pandemic rental relief, data released by the state showed this week — and two of the state’s largest jurisdictions are among those that have spent the least.

Maryland launched its Emergency Rental Assistance Program in May 2020 with the help of $401 million in federal money. About $143 million of that pot was divided among the state’s eight largest jurisdictions, while the remaining money was allocated to the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development for statewide distribution.

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As of July 31, about 10,000 renters had received $59 million, according to a public dashboard released by the state Tuesday. An additional $34 million in payments were in process by that time.

The dashboard reports no data from Baltimore City and just $800,000 in aid distributed to 151 households in Baltimore County, two of the state’s largest jurisdictions. Another $600,000 in payments to Baltimore County renters were reported as in progress.

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Surrounding jurisdictions have outspent Baltimore and Baltimore County. Anne Arundel County has distributed $6.7 million; Howard County has spent $3.4 million with another $4.4 million in progress and Harford County has disbursed $1.8 million. All of those jurisdictions received money directly from the federal government and through the state’s housing agency.

Carroll County, which receives its rental assistance solely through the state, has distributed $600,000 with another $1.1 million in progress.

Baltimore leaders said they have provided rental relief, but prioritized spending money from other pots before leaning on dollars from the Emergency Rental Assistance Program, known as ERAP.

Baltimore County officials say they’ve distributed a total of $9.5 million to prevent evictions from various sources, including $7.4 million from federal and state relief money awarded last year to 1,793 households.

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Baltimore County was given $49.3 million of ERAP money and has contracts with nonprofits to disburse $35 million of it, according to county spokesman Sean Naron.

Stefanie Mavronis, a spokeswoman for Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott, said the city has disbursed $20.8 million in rental assistance to 4,300 households since November 2020. Mavronis said the city used money with the earliest deadlines first. A total of $58.2 million for rent relief has been allocated for Baltimore.

“The city does not have state ERAP grant activity to report for this latest reporting period ending July 31. It expects to begin spending down its state ERAP dollars in September,” she said.

Federal officials are pressuring state and local governments to spend the $46.5 billion in Emergency Rental Assistance Program allocated as part of the American Rescue Plan in March to keep renters in their homes during the pandemic. Earlier this month, White House officials accused states and cities of being “too slow to act.”

But rules on the funding deadline have changed, confusing some local jurisdictions. Starting Sept. 30, states and local governments are supposed to have contracts to spend 65% of ERAP funds. Those that don’t risk needing to return unspent funds to the federal government for reallocation, although that decision is ultimately left to the discretion of the U.S. treasury secretary.

“We all want to spend the money,” said Terry Hickey, Baltimore County’s director of housing and community development. “That means it goes into landlords’ bank accounts and keeps renters in their homes.”

Mike Ricci, spokesman for Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, said the state is on pace to meet the Treasury Department’s goal of having 65% of funds “committed” by mid-October.

“We are on track to achieve that, but counties clearly need to get this relief out the door more quickly,” Ricci said. “While some counties are already utilizing about half of their funding, others are lagging behind.”

The state’s dashboard shows that all jurisdictions other than Baltimore City have disbursed at least some of their ERAP money.

Ricci chided the city for passing a nonbinding resolution earlier this week calling on the governor to reinstate state eviction protections in the midst of the pandemic. Councilwoman Odette Ramos, the resolution’s sponsor, said at the time the governor needed to do his part to combat the eviction crisis.

“We have done ours and continue to do ours,” she said.

“What’s unacceptable is the City Council passing a resolution predicated on the notion that the city has ‘done its part,’ when clearly that is not the case,” Ricci said.

Ricci said the state Department of Housing and Community Development has asked Baltimore City and Baltimore County officials to submit plans within the next week for how they will use their remaining ERAP funding.

Fears about a rash of evictions have been amplified thanks to uncertainty surrounding the expiration of a federal eviction moratorium. President Joe Biden allowed a blanket moratorium to expire earlier this month, his administration arguing his hands were tied after the Supreme Court only narrowly allowed the moratorium to continue through the end of July.

This month, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a new eviction moratorium that would last until October 3, this time restricted to areas of the country experiencing substantial or high coronavirus transmission rates, which encompasses much of the country, including all of Maryland.

Locally, funds have been slow to roll out. Officials say doling out the money has been complicated by shifting qualifications for who is eligible for rental assistance and that parsing through self-reported income data to prioritize the most vulnerable has slowed the process.

Advocates blame inadequate local infrastructure to disburse an unprecedented amount of funding, confusion over a labor-intensive application process and lack of cooperation from landlords for the lag time in spending the money.

The system “was set up to be chaotic from the start,” said Carisa Hatfield, an attorney with the Homeless Persons Representation Project, which provides legal services to Maryland residents at risk of homelessness.

“State and local governments, I think, have never dealt with this level of funding they need to get out the door so quickly,” Hatfield said.

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There’s also the changing eligibility requirements for various pots of federal eviction prevention aid. Tenants living in subsidized housing at one point weren’t eligible, and landlords previously had to meet different rental license requirements.

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Landlords in some jurisdictions were reluctant to accept ERAP funds that required them to agree to certain conditions in order to accept the money, including forgoing their right to file legal action against a tenant who has failed to pay rent within a certain time frame.

“The spending rate ... leaves a lot to be desired for tenants and for landlords,” Hatfield said. “It’s embarrassing to say to a tenant ‘I don’t know when your rental assistance application will be completed or when the funding will be received.’”

Ricci said other states have faced more challenges in distributing ERAP funds thanks to a “one-size-fits-all” approach. He credited the decision by Maryland leaders to let local jurisdictions distribute the money for the progress thus far.

“Different counties have different challenges, and our housing team works with them regularly to resolve any problems,” the governor’s spokesman said. “The amount of relief that went out in July increased exponentially over previous months, and we expect that trend to continue.”

Landlords point to the tenant-based payment system set up by Maryland jurisdictions when they first began disbursing rental assistance as an issue, said Adam Skolnik, executive director of the Maryland Multi-Housing Association.

“They should’ve learned their lesson [about tenant-based payments] with the CARES Act funds,” Skolnik said. “They weren’t successful.”

Skolnik, who represents landlords across much of the state, said jurisdictions are largely not aggressive enough in trying to connect renters with aid.

Skolink points to Baltimore County’s Strategic Targeted Eviction Prevention, or STEP, program, as a model other local governments should follow. The program paid owed rent directly to landlords, who agreed to discount the amount due, through the United Way of Central Maryland for around 900 tenants.

Howard County and Baltimore City are among jurisdictions now employing the same program, Skolnik said.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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