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Baltimore council introduces bill to close eviction loophole, other housing measures in response to COVID-19

The Baltimore City Council unveiled a package of proposed housing legislation Monday targeted at helping homeowners and renters struggling during the coronavirus pandemic.

The bills, some of which were introduced during the board’s evening meeting, aim to hold off late fees for those receiving public housing subsidies, change how security deposits are paid, and close a loophole allowing people to be effectively evicted despite a moratorium on evictions during the pandemic.

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Also proposed are two bills that would allow for property taxes to be paid via installment plans.

The bills are some of the dozens of pieces of legislation unveiled Monday as the City Council began its session under the leadership of newly seated Council President Nick Mosby, a Democrat. In addition to a new president, the board also has five new members sworn in last month for their first terms. Monday was their first meeting of the new year.

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Most of the board’s slate of legislation was introduced, although technical difficulties with City Council’s virtual meeting platform postponed the end of the meeting, which was to include two housing proposals. The board will reconvene at 5 p.m. Wednesday to complete the meeting.

An anticipated bill capping fees charged by third-party food delivery apps that was announced previously by City Council members was among proposed legislation introduced Monday, as was a previously debated moratorium on the city using facial recognition technology sponsored by Democratic Councilman Kristerfer Burnett.

The eviction loophole bill — the only piece of the housing package that will not be introduced until later this month — aims to stop the use of “tenant holding over” court to remove tenants for unpaid rent. That legal process allows a landlord to take action against a tenant whose lease has expired without having to provide a codified reason for not extending or renewing a lease.

The process, which saw an 82% increase in use in Baltimore district court in August and September according to a Baltimore Sun analysis, allows landlords to circumvent state and federal freezes on residential evictions for failure to pay rent.

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A bill sponsored by council Vice President Sharon Green Middleton, a Democrat, requires landlords with 10 or more units to offer alternatives to the requirement for a traditional security deposit. Another measure, sponsored by Councilman Robert Stokes, would require a 10-day grace period for rent paid late and bar people receiving public assistance from being hit with late fees on rent before their public assistance money arrives. Stokes is also a Democrat.

Two proposals sponsored by freshman Councilwoman Odette Ramos, a Democrat, aim to help homeowners by allowing them to set up monthly installment plans to pay city property tax bills, rather than making larger payments twice per year. A separate bill would allow installment plans for liens and certain fees. The bills were designed to work hand-in-hand and help people avoid having the city seize and sell their properties because of unpaid taxes, Ramos explained to her colleagues during a noon meeting.

Democratic Councilman Eric Costello’s legislation to cap the fees charged by food delivery services is expected to get an accelerated look from his fellow council members. The bill was introduced Monday, and members hope to take a final vote Jan. 25 by invoking a rule that allows them to advance from second reading to a final third reading on the same day.

First announced last year shortly after an indoor and outdoor dining ban was enacted in the city by Democratic Mayor Brandon Scott, the bill would cap fees charged by apps such as DoorDash, Grubhub, Postmates and Uber Eats at 15%. The apps typically take commissions from restaurants of around 30% of the total costs of orders.

Restaurateurs and chefs across the country have pleaded with customers to delete the apps and order directly from restaurants to support local businesses amid the pandemic. If Baltimore passes the legislation, it would join a growing group of cities that have done the same, including Chicago, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.

The legislation is tied to the ongoing public health emergency, and would expire 90 days after Maryland’s state of emergency is lifted, whenever that is. Maryland has been under the state of emergency since March.

The new council also will consider an issue on which legislation stalled in committee last year: barring the city from using facial recognition technology. In October, the council’s public safety committee deadlocked on a similar bill and it never reached the full council for review.

The use of facial recognition by law enforcement has been controversial amid concerns about privacy and false matches, leading some cities to ban it.

But officials in Baltimore have worried that Burnett’s proposal would interrupt the city police department’s use of a statewide photo database to identify suspects. And there were questions raised last year about whether the police department would be subject to the restrictions. Burnett said in October that the city law department believed the city police department was a state agency, not under the primary jurisdiction of local law.

However, city attorney Hilary Ruley said at the time that she needed to read more about the state law to see whether police could continue to use the database if the bill was passed.

Burnett urged his colleagues Monday to “be on the right side of history” by supporting the moratorium. He argued the technology has proved particularly ineffective in identifying minority women.

The council’s committees have been consolidated under Mosby’s leadership, and the facial recognition bill would be considered by a seven-member public safety and government operations committee. The committee is chaired by freshman Democratic Councilman Mark Conway, with Burnett, Costello, Ramos and Democratic council members Zeke Cohen, Antonio Glover and Phylicia Porter as members.

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