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City Council Voting On Bill To Provide Lawyers For Tenants Facing Eviction

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AP/PATRICK SEMANSKY
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The Baltimore City Council is to vote on a bill Monday night that would provide lawyers to tenants facing eviction cases. The bill comes amid concerns about a mass eviction crisis as tenants struggle to pay rent because of the pandemic.  

For most of the pandemic, Maryland has been under state and federal eviction moratoriums. In September, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ordered a ban on evictions until 2021.

But landlords still have managed to evict tenants who cannot afford lawyers. 

City Council President and Mayor-Elect Brandon Scott is a sponsor of the bill. He spoke at a Housing & Urban Affairs Committee hearing last week, where the bill was passed for today’s meeting.

“This is an issue that we should have been thinking about prior to COVID-19,” Scott said. “We know that when people show up to court with representation, they achieve outcomes that are more fair and equitable. That’s what this piece of legislation is about.” 

At the hearing, State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby said Baltimore has one of the highest eviction rates in the nation. 

“Let me be very clear that this looming eviction crisis will likely have a negative impact on crime, public safety, my office and all of our communities,” she said. 

Mosby said people who are evicted are more likely to commit a crime out of economic desperation, then experience a vicious cycle of crime and homelessness. 

“They serve their time and they get out to try to rehabilitate themselves and put their lives back on track, only to be denied access to housing and employment and other benefits as they try and reintegrate into society,” Mosby said. 

She cited a 2016 survey by the advocacy group Baltimore Renter’s United, that shows that 80% of tenants had a legitimate defense to stay in their homes, but only 8% were successful because they had lawyers. 

Mara James, who was representing the City’s Department of Finance at that hearing, said that it opposes the legislation but supported its intent. 

“We do recognize we are also in a tough budget situation as a city,” James said. “We had to close fiscal ‘20 with a $14 million deficit.” 

She noted a study by global investment bank and advisory firm Stout, The Stout study says the bill would cost the city about $5.7 million annually.

But the same study says this investment will save the city and state $35.6 million annually that it would otherwise spend managing homelessness. 

Matt Hill, an attorney at the Public Justice Center, said his group and over 30 other organizations support passage of the bill. 

“Let’s just be clear that there’s a price for inaction as well. And that’s very, very high,” Hill said. 

Hill said rent delinquencies are 100% to 200% greater than they were before COVID-19, and that between August and October this year, 451 families in Baltimore were evicted.

He said by passing the bill, Baltimore would be joining a growing movement of progressive jurisdictions such as New York City, Philadelphia and Cleveland. 

Tiffany Ralph, secretary of the Bolton House Residents Association, told the committee the bill will provide an added source of security for tenants who face the stress of eviction. 

“Many of the residents in their properties have seen a decline in their health,” Ralph said. “The few residents who have been brave enough to step forward are targeted by management with retaliatory tactics, including failure to pay rent notices, eviction proceedings and fraudulent financial charges on tenants accounts.” 

If the bill passes, it will take an estimated four years to implement.