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Maryland housing advocates, lawmakers discuss bills to reform eviction process, stem housing crisis

Maryland housing advocates and lawmakers on Monday laid out a series of proposals for stemming the ongoing housing crisis and expanding emergency eviction protections that have been afforded to renters during the coronavirus pandemic.

Several Democratic lawmakers, including Del. Melissa Wells of Baltimore City and Del. Wanika Fisher of Prince George’s County, unveiled legislation they’ll be introducing when the Maryland General Assembly convenes on Jan. 13. Among other actions, these bills would bar all eviction filings other than “imminent threat” until April 2022, encourage landlords to seek other resolutions before filing for eviction and establish a statewide right-to-counsel for tenants.

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The news conference came one day after President Donald Trump signed a $2 trillion coronavirus relief and federal spending package, which includes $25 billion in rental assistance, as well as additional unemployment benefits and relief payments to families.

While Public Justice Center attorney Zafar Shah described the package as a “silver lining” for Maryland families, he noted that it will take time for the assistance to filter down to those who need it — and if there’s something renters facing eviction during a pandemic don’t have, Shah added, it’s time.

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“It’s clear that relief money is not effective without a deeper reform of the eviction system and investing in holistic services that serve economically struggling households,” he said. “We look to make housing justice happen for renters, homeowners and housing providers — to make it a top priority as Maryland builds back better.”

The stimulus package Trump signed Sunday also extended a federal eviction moratorium through the end of January, which — alongside a statewide eviction moratorium — has offered some protections for renters struggling to pay rent during the pandemic. But housing advocates and lawmakers stress that neither moratorium has represented a full stop on evictions.

From October through November, Shah said, Maryland courts processed over 4,500 warrants to evict families, and landlords evicted over 1,100 households. And just as low-income and Black families have been disproportionately devastated by the pandemic, Shah says they’ve also had the most difficulty keeping up with rent payments.

To help ensure renters are able to stay in their homes during the pandemic, Del. Jheanelle Wilkins said she and Sen. Will Smith, both from Montgomery County, will be introducing a bill that would bar landlords from raising rent or issuing late fees or interest charges during the public health crisis, as well as prohibit them from terminating or not renewing leases unless they have a “legitimate reason” for doing so.

Wilkins said their bill would also expand and extend the existing statewide eviction order — which is set to expire concurrently with Maryland’s state of emergency — to encompass all eviction filings, other than those for cases representing an “imminent threat,” until April 2022 and offer financial relief to landlords.

Additionally, Wells said she and Sen. Charles Sydnor, of Baltimore County, will introduce a bill that would enact changes within the eviction process to give judges broader power to delay eviction in emergency situations, give renters more time to prepare for trial and establish a “pre-trial structure” for cases that would create opportunities for resolutions besides eviction — such as the mediated creation of repayment plans.

“We are not asking landlords to give up their rights. We are asking for a fair fight,” Wells said.

Attorney General Brian Frosh, a Democrat, also appeared at the news conference to support the legislative package outlined by the lawmakers and to underline the need for increased eviction filing fees — something he described as one of his office’s top legislative priorities for the upcoming session.

According to the cost schedule for Maryland’s district court, it costs $15 for a landlord to file a failure to pay rent case in all state jurisdictions except Baltimore, where it costs landlords $25. Should the court decide in the landlord’s favor, tenants are able to remain in the place they’re renting if they pay off all past due rent and late fees, plus court-awarded costs and fees, before the eviction takes place — unless they have had three or more similar judgements made against them the previous year. In Baltimore, the benchmark is four judgements.

At the news conference, and in an op-ed for The Baltimore Sun, Frosh said these filing fees are some of the lowest in the country. The state’s rate of eviction filings — which Frosh says regularly hits over 80% — is far higher than the rates of its neighboring states, which range from 5.3% in Pennsylvania to 15.7% in Virginia.

To create an eviction process that is more fair to tenants, Frosh said he plans to ask lawmakers to increase the state’s eviction filing fee to at least the national average of $120 and prohibit landlords from passing off that cost to tenants. This increased surcharge would also fund representation for tenants in court, Frosh said, linking his proposal to a bill sponsored by Fisher and Sen. Shelly Hettleman, of Baltimore County, which would provide low-income renters with a right to a lawyer.

“It’s important to emphasize that eviction is not simply a condition of poverty — it’s a root cause that perpetuates a cycle that can last for generations,” Frosh said. “It disrupts lives in profound and irrevocable ways. It means loss not just of a home, but also of possessions, of school, of community, employment, mental and physical health and the ability to find another place to live.”

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Adam Skolnik, executive director of the Maryland Multi-Housing Association, said his organization has no problem with the legislature establishing a right to counsel for tenants. What it does have a problem with, Skolnik said, is forcing landlords to pay for those attorneys through their eviction filing fees.

For one, Skolnik said, that structure just seems unfair. Plus, when the association surveyed the 160 owners and managers of rental housing it represents, Skolnik said there was a consensus that they would not file for eviction less often if the filing fee were to be increased.

But if the legislature did end up voting to raise this fee, Skolnik argued that the revenue it raised should be used to establish funds to help tenants pay their rent instead of hiring lawyers.

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“[Then you’d] have this robust rental assistance program that actually stops evictions,” he said. “Because the lawyers are not going to stop evictions.”

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