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Baltimore housing advocates call for halt on evictions

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Housing advocates at a rally last August. Credit: Sarah Y. Kim/WYPR

Renters advocacy coalition Baltimore Renters United (BRU) called on city leaders Tuesday to halt evictions as COVID-19 cases continue to surge in Maryland.

Public Justice Center attorney Matt Hill said that hundreds of evictions in Baltimore City are set to take place in the coming weeks.

Those evictions, he said, will only exacerbate the winter surge of the disease.

“If tenants are evicted, they're forced to live in close quarters in shelters, doubled up with family or friends or on the streets,” he said at a BRU virtual press conference Tuesday. “You cannot quarantine or stay home if you have no home.”

As of Tuesday, Baltimore City’s positivity rate is 32.5%

The mayor wrote in a statement Tuesday that he was “deeply concerned” about the impact of evictions, but said that “this is a matter of State law that the City does not have the authority to address.”

“I encourage the Governor to sincerely consider eviction relief or delegate power to local governments to make the best decision for our residents,” Scott wrote.

In March of 2020, former Mayor Jack Young joined the sheriff’s office and a district judge to halt evictions, days before Gov. Larry Hogan issued an official statewide moratorium on evictions for failure to pay rent. Advocates are hoping that Scott will issue a similar measure.

Scott spokesperson Jack French wrote in an email to WYPR that Young was able to take that action because the governor had given local governments that authority.

“That is precisely why we are asking the Governor to act now,” French wrote.

Hogan did not include a halt on evictions in his 30 day state of emergency announcement Tuesday morning.

Federal and state eviction moratoriums for failure to pay rent were in place for most of the pandemic, but expired last year in August.

The pandemic has hit Keisha, a Baltimore City renter who lives with her children and sister, particularly hard. Keisha ,who did not give her last name fearing retaliation from her landlord, recently received an eviction notice.

“I'm scared of what will happen for my family if we get evicted and have to go into a shelter or live with others,” she said.

Keisha said at one point her entire household had COVID. Most of her family already had respiratory illnesses. Her sister was hospitalized with COVID for more than a week. Keisha’s sister then developed long-term heart problems and had to miss work. As a result, she lost her job.

Keisha also had to work reduced hours to help her children with virtual school.

She noted that while evictions are still going on, Maryland courts reduced operations due to the winter surge.

“Do our lives mean less than theirs do?” she demanded. “We’re just pleading and asking the courts to please rethink these decisions and stop the evictions.”

Dr. Gwen DuBois, of Chesapeake Physicians for Social Responsibility, said hospitals are being “stretched to the limit” and that halting evictions right now is a “public health imperative.”

“We must see housing as health, preventing illness, hospitalization and death,” she said.

DuBois also read a statement from Dr. Zackary Berger, of Johns Hopkins Medicine who works at the Esperanza Center.

Berger wrote that one of his patients was unemployed for the past six months, and was briefly homeless. After getting a new job and a new apartment, he became sick and had to miss work. On Christmas, he learned he had COVID.

The patient wrote to Berger asking how long he would have to isolate, and said he was facing eviction on New Year’s Eve.

“‘This story is repeated over and over again.’” DuBois read.

Throughout the pandemic, housing advocates have called evictions a public health crisis, not just in the context of COVID.

DuBois said health consequences include low birth weight, premature birth, increased infant mortality, and chronic asthma.

“Young children exposed to overcrowding and multiple moves in one year were more often reported to have poor health, food insecurity, impaired educational, social or emotional skills. In older children, a history of multiple moves has been associated with mental health problems later in life, including violence and suicide,” she said.

The mayor’s office told WYPR that they are “working on increasing their staffing level” in the city’s eviction prevention program to help distribute rental assistance dollars.