Angel Lopez lost his job as a mechanic in Baltimore when business slowed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Then his partner lost her part-time job cleaning houses.
Lopez is undocumented, and his partner’s application for asylum is on hold while the courts are closed. As a result, they don’t qualify for unemployment, federal stimulus money, or Baltimore’s small existing rental assistance program.
During an interview in mid-April, Lopez said he wasn’t sure how he would pay for May’s rent. He said he was considering selling his car.
Executive orders Gov. Larry Hogan signed in March and April prohibit judges from issuing eviction orders during the state of emergency. But the orders don’t prevent landlords from beginning the eviction process. Advocates warn that as soon as the state of emergency ends, there will be an onslaught of evictions and families like Lopez’s could be homeless.
In a normal year, about 6,000 or 7,000 Baltimore City households are evicted from their homes, said Matt Hill, an attorney with the Public Justice Center, whose clients include renters facing eviction. By comparison, he expects this year there will be at least 20,000 renter households who will have trouble paying rent for April, May, June and future months.
Despite the eviction moratorium, he said, some landlords are sending “notice to vacate” letters to tenants with month-to-month leases or whose leases are close to ending. Some are charging hefty late fees that tenants now owe on top of back rent, cutting access to utilities or refusing to make repairs.
“I’ve had one client who was complaining about a rodent infestation that is just — sounds absolutely miserable — worried about her children hearing the rodents in the wall, and it's just gotten worse because as soon as the the COVID crisis hit, the landlord simply hasn't made any of the necessary repairs to keep the rodent infestation in check and get rid of it,” Hill said.
The Public Justice Center sent a letter to Hogan last week asking him to extend the eviction moratorium and prohibit landlords from charging late fees through July 25, and to set up a rental assistance program, starting with more than $153 million from the federal CARES Act. Representatives from the group are expected to repeat those calls Monday during a hearing before the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.
Hill said they also want the state or local jurisdictions to create more flexible rental assistance programs that don’t disqualify undocumented immigrants like Lopez.
“We’d love to see the governor and the General Assembly come back and explore other innovative approaches, such as canceling the rent, or at least providing that there should be no eviction for failure to pay rent,” Hill said.
The state Department of Housing and Community Development is in the process of determining how to use about $24 million the CARES Act makes available for tenant-based rental assistance, said spokesman Owen McEvoy. He said most of that funding will likely be used in programs run by local governments.
The Maryland Multi-Housing Association, a trade group that represents many of the larger property managers in the state, supports some of what the Public Justice Center and other tenant advocates have called for a rental assistance fund, said Aaron Greenfield, the group’s director of government affairs. But they dislike any solution that prevents landlords from collecting rent.
“If there isn't money coming through the door, we can't keep our employees, we can't reinvest in the community, we can't market the community, we can't invest in some of the property needs,” he said. “If money's not coming in, it's not like our communities are sitting on a pot of gold and can just fund themselves.”
The group has asked members not to charge late fees or raise rents.
Greenfield emphasized that the landlords his group represents are generally trying to work with their tenants who are struggling. It’s the bad actors, he said, the ones the MMHA doesn’t represent, that are taking advantage of struggling tenants.