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Failed Efforts To Protect Tenants

A Baltimore City resident speaking at an Aug. 11 rally about being illegally evicted during the pandemic. Credit: Sarah Y. Kim/WYPR
A Baltimore City resident speaking at an Aug. 11 rally about being illegally evicted during the pandemic. Credit: Sarah Y. Kim/WYPR

Note: This is the first in an occasional series by Sarah about the pandemic’s impact on evictions

For housing advocates who have been sounding the alarm about a pandemic eviction crisis, the past year feels like one of missed opportunities.

Maryland’s eviction moratorium expired Aug. 15. Now, tenants behind on their rent are clinging onto a new CDC order, which bans evictions in counties with substantial to high transmission of COVID-19.

As of Tuesday, that’s all of Maryland. But the order is set to expire in October. Many renters are still waiting on rental assistance. And housing policy reforms they’d hoped to see adopted died in the last session of the General Assembly.

Tenant advocates like Caitlin Goldblatt from Baltimore Renters United are calling on Gov. Larry Hogan to step in.

“Before COVID-19 ever infected people in Baltimore, we had an eviction crisis,” Goldblatt said.

She spoke at a rally shortly before the governor’s moratorium expired, where advocates and tenants demanded that Hogan issue a new state eviction moratorium. They also want Hogan to require landlords to try to get rental assistance for their tenants before proceeding to eviction.

But Goldblatt added at this point, the governor can only delay an “urgent crisis.”

“Before we ever saw a huge surge in infections from the Delta variant, our state legislature failed to pass life saving tenant protections prior to the end of their session,” she said.

In Maryland, about 129,000 households are behind on rent, according to the National Equity Atlas.

During the rally, Charisse Lue, an attorney at the Public Justice Center, read testimony from city resident, Monique Dillard. Dillard uses a wheelchair and has been relying on disability benefits to get by.

“Our landlord refuses to accept the rental assistance funds, but wants to evict us for non payment of rent,” Lue read. “We felt trapped, helpless and alone. No one should feel like that.”

At this year’s General Assembly session, legislators introduced a “housing justice package” that would have implemented emergency protections and long term reforms, like raising the cost of filing evictions.

Most of those bills failed or died, including House Bill 1312, sponsored by Montgomery County Democrat Del. Jheanelle Wilkins.

The bill, which would have codified and expanded Hogan’s eviction protections for the pandemic and future health emergencies, passed the House of Delegates, but languished in a Senate committee until the final hours of the session, when it was too late to pass it.

Wilkins said that legislators should not have delayed until the last minute.

“I think that I have no other conclusion to draw other than a lack of a sense of urgency,” Wilkins told WYPR shortly after the legislature adjourned. “It's just disappointing that we weren't able to do more during this pandemic.”

In the housing justice package, only the “Access to Counsel” bill -- which creates a program to guarantee legal help for renters facing eviction -- passed. But an accompanying bill that would have funded the program failed this session, and the Hogan administration has not yet allocated funds for the program.

Terrel Askew, an organizer for United Workers and advocate in Baltimore Renters United, said that state lawmakers’ approach this year was ‘lackluster.’

“In this moment we are suffering from a chronic lack of imagination and humanity,” Askew told WYPR.

The best hope for many tenants now is getting their rental assistance as soon as possible.

But only 15% of the federal Emergency Rental Assistance (ERAP) funds Maryland has received has been distributed, according to state data. Maryland has a total of about $401 million in ERAP funds.

The state housing department wrote in a recent statement that rental assistance funds are now being distributed more quickly, and that prior to ERAP, Maryland allocated $113 million in state, local and federal funds to approximately 30,000 renters.

Housing officials also hope that programs like STEP 2.0, organized by United Way of Central Maryland, would speed up aid distribution, by giving money directly to landlords so that their renters would be covered in bulk.

Speaking at the recent rally with other Baltimore housing advocates, Zafar Shah, an attorney from the Public Justice Center echoed the sentiment of many that state officials have not done enough.

“And so here we are,” Shah said. “We're not here because we spent the last year begging. We're here because we've been working. We've been coming up against walls. And so it's absolutely time that we break down that wall. We just need Governor Hogan.”

Sarah Y. Kim is WYPR’s health and housing reporter. Kim is WYPR's Report for America corps member, and Anthony Brandon Fellow. Kim joined WYPR as a 2020-2021 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. Now in her second year as an RFA corps member, Kim is based in Baltimore City.