As Maryland’s annual General Assembly session opens Wednesday, a coalition of lawmakers and advocates are pushing a package of bills that would provide relief to tenants and homeowners hurt by the pandemic.
The session begins weeks before eviction and foreclosure moratoriums expire on Jan. 31.
Delegate Vaughn Stewart, a Montgomery County Democrat, and Sen. Jill Carter, a Baltimore City Democrat, are sponsoring bills in both houses that would extend the foreclosure moratorium.
“This is not going to be a walk in the park,” Stewart said. “We're going to be judged not only as individual legislators, but as a legislature, we're going to be judged by what we do during this session.”
Zafar Shah is an attorney at the Public Justice Center advocating for the package. He said the package wouldn’t just target housing instability during the pandemic. At its core, it’s about long term reform.
“We are asking legislators to really listen to the pain that their constituents have gone through during the pandemic and if they understand that pain in 2020, they need to address it going forward so that they're addressing that pain in 2022, in 2023 and so on,” Shah said.
Several of the bills would make it more difficult for landlords to file evictions.
One such bill, backed by Attorney General Brian Frosh, would raise the cost of filing eviction.
“We’re the third lowest nationwide there are only two states that are cheaper to file an eviction lawsuit than it is in Maryland,” Frosh said at a press conference introducing the package. “Some states impose fees up to 300 350 bucks. The average is $122.”
In most Maryland counties, the cost of filing an eviction is $15. In Baltimore, it’s $25.
In addition, a ‘Right to Counsel’ bill would guarantee tenants lawyers in eviction court cases.
Shah said such bills may seem radical to some landlords and legislators. That’s a sign, he said, that there needs to be broader systemic change.
“Everything we’ve proposed has precedent,” Shah said. “These are not earth shattering types of policy proposals. It's just that we have had such an industry-favoring public policy of racing to displace people.”
Shah said that since July, there have been 2500 court ordered evictions despite eviction moratoriums.
The package also includes bills that would extend eviction moratoriums throughout 2021 and require landlords to help tenants seek rental assistance before filing evictions.
Adam Skolnik is the executive director of the Maryland Multi-Housing Association, a trade group that represents landlords.
He said the most helpful solution to evictions is not the package, but rental assistance, and that some renters have not applied for it.
“In this coming session, I don't know that there's an industry that legislators are targeting more than ours,” Skolnik said. “And I genuinely don't understand it.”
But at the press conference introducing the bill, Shah said rental assistance would not be enough and that renters often do not get it in time.
“The truth, which we've seen time and again throughout the pandemic, is that it takes time for assistance to reach those that need it,” he said.
Stewart said lawmakers must prioritize the needs of those most vulnerable during the pandemic.
“Folks are counting on us. It’s a moral question, do we step up to the plate and help people? Or are we going to retreat and play small ball and play incrementalism, and not help folks as much as they need?” he said.
In the meantime, Stewart said residents can make themselves heard by emailing their legislators.
“Reach out to them and say: ‘This is what I'm going through. This is what I've experienced during this pandemic, here are my fears for the future.’ And it can be extremely impactful,” Stewart said.