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Baltimore Bill Requiring Landlords To Offer Lease Renewal May Conflict With State Law

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Sarah Y. Kim/WYPR
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Baltimore City Council members introducing a proposed housing relief package in January. The package includes Councilman Antonio Glover's bill

While federal and state eviction bans during the pandemic have helped protect Maryland tenants in “failure to pay rent cases," those bans haven’t protected tenants from being evicted when their leases expire.

In Maryland, a landlord is not required to give a reason for not renewing or extending a tenant’s lease.

Councilman Antonio Glover is sponsoring a bill that would require landlords to offer lease renewals whether or not tenants are behind on their rent. It would allow landlords to refuse renewals only for “good cause” - for example, if the tenant was committing a crime, or damaging the property.

Glover introduced the bill in January, as part of a proposed ‘housing relief package’ by city councilmembers. He said the bill would protect low-income renters.

“I’ve heard so many stories of people who are barely holding on, they’re barely making it,” Glover said at a January press conference.

Glover represents East Baltimore’s 13th district, an area he has said is particularly vulnerable to eviction.

But Hilary Ruley of the Baltimore City Law Department told a public hearing on the bill Tuesday that it may not be legal. She said she appreciates the bill’s aim to help renters, but that it’s in conflict with state and local law.

“In Maryland, state law guarantees landlords the right to evict people at the end of the lease,” Ruley said. “The city, even during a pandemic, can't enact a law that says otherwise.”

Ruley warned that as a result, the bill would not help renters who try to use it as legal defense in court.

“That court isn't going to be looking at this local law. If they did and they upheld it, the landlord would clearly win in court,” she said.

But Public Justice Center attorney Zafar Shah argued landlords are not necessarily guaranteed the right to evict tenants whose leases expire.

“For all that’s been said so far, the fundamental point for the council to interpret is whether this bill conflicts with existing state laws or supplements existing state laws,” Shah said.

Speaking on behalf of tenant advocacy coalition Baltimore Renters United, Shah expressed strong support for the bill.

“When you look at the picture of housing destabilization across the state, we're not talking just about an extreme poverty population,” he said. “We're talking about one in four renter households.”

That housing instability, Shah said, is especially severe for Black and Brown households.

Ruley remained firm that the law department could not support the bill. She acknowledged that while the bill is in its early stages, she doesn’t see a way around it.

“I completely sympathize with these renters. I wish there was something we could do,” Ruley said. “And I certainly would have suggested an amendment if I thought it was in any way possible.”

Councilmembers in the Economic and Community Development Committee are considering amendments that would make the bill more closely align with state law. They also discussed citing the CDC’s federal eviction ban in the bill, in the hopes that will supersede state law during the pandemic.

Glover was out sick at Tuesday’s public hearing on the bill. Jamaal Simpson, a member of Glover’s staff, gave his written statement.

“No doubt COVID-19 has created a looming housing crisis across America,” Simpson said. “But it only compounds the housing crisis that has already existed in Baltimore City...it is time to act, to make a decision to choose some of our most vulnerable people at this critical moment in our history."