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State lawmakers push forward another housing justice package

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Credit: Bruce Emmerling/Pixabay

State lawmakers, housing advocates and renters called on the General Assembly Tuesday to pass a package of renter protection bills. Most bills in a similar package last year failed.

One bill that passed last year created a program to guarantee lawyers for renters facing eviction, called “access to counsel.”

The catch? A separate bill that would have funded that program failed.

The funding bill is one of five key bills in this year’s housing justice package.

Cristina Carranza, a renter at Prince George’s County, said at a virtual press conference that money for lawyers will help keep her and her children housed. Carranza received an eviction notice during the pandemic.

“I've never been late on my rent,” Carranza said through a translator. “During the pandemic I lost my job. But to the leasing office and management that did not matter.”

Lisa Sarro, general counsel for Arundel Community Development Services (ACDS), said Anne Arundel County’s own access to counsel program has proved “worthwhile over and over.”

“We are hopeful that we'll get some state funding for that program because they're difficult for counties to afford on their own,” Sarro said.

Sen. Shelly Hettleman, a Baltimore County Democrat, is sponsoring two of the bills in this year’s housing package, one of which would require landlords to show proof of a valid rental license if they want to do fast-track eviction procedures.

“We want to make sure that landlords are fulfilling their obligations in terms of providing safe and secure housing, and shouldn't be able to use a workaround to be able to evict people if they're not upholding the law on their end,” Hettleman said.

Hettleman’s other bill would empower Maryland courts to pause evictions for renters awaiting emergency rental assistance.

Sarro said ACDS has helped prevent evictions for more than 1,600 households since March of 2021, using $20 million in emergency rental assistance funds. But that money does not always go out as quickly as renters would need it.

“It is really hard work getting that money out the door. And we are not the only county that is struggling,” Sarro said.

Del. Jheanelle Wilkins, a Montgomery County Democrat, is sponsoring a bill that would require landlords to provide “just cause” if they decide to refuse a lease renewal to a tenant.

Renter advocates have argued that such legislation would close a loophole landlords have used to evict tenants behind on rent.

“It’s absolutely critical that we ensure that renter protections are passed this year,” Wilkins said.

Another bill would give renters access to rental assistance programs, legal representation and other resources on the day of a trial.

Zafar Shah from the Public Justice Center stressed that without renter protections, those primarily hurt will be people of color.

“We've heard already in this legislative session, that there was no eviction tsunami, that there's no crisis and that federal rent relief, in and of itself, is the only solution. So why bother with legislative solutions?” Shah said. “And I think that the response to that narrative is to look at who is being left behind in this economic recovery.”

According to a U.S. Census Household Pulse Survey, as of January, 131,813 Maryland renters feel they’re very likely or somewhat likely to be evicted in the next two months. The majority of those renters are Latino or Black, and live with children.