Court action in Maryland staves off evictions

As the pandemic drags on, families are falling further behind on their rent.

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Keeping renters in their residences has been a priority for nearly a year in Maryland.  

Tenants have been protected as a result of the pandemic. An emergency order issued last March by Gov. Larry Hogan prohibits courts from ordering the eviction of any tenant who can show the failure to pay rent was the result of Covid-19. Examples of financial hardship include loss off employment, needing to care for a school-aged child or being diagnosed with the virus.

Tenants can still, however, be evicted for other breaches of the lease. If they have a court date, they must  present a signed declaration to their landlord that states they are behind on their rent because of the pandemic.

The tenant also needs to appear in court with a copy of the signed declaration and explain to the judge why they are behind.

The judge can’t extend a forgiveness of rent, so the court action only temporarily stops the eviction process. The tenant will still be responsible for all past due rent amounts.

Salisbury and Wicomico County have mostly been free of evictions since the pandemic emerged last spring.

In all of its pandemic-related communications, the city of Salisbury -- which has a housing base comprised predominantly of rentals -- has made the point that tenants must remain engaged with their landlords.

In her daily Coronavirus Task Force briefings on social media, City Administrator Julia Glanz has repeatedly called on tenants to contact their landlords and negotiate agreements. Glanz has also pointed viewers and other members of the public toward relief programs that offer funding assistance.

Early in the pandemic, to keep the virus from spreading in the homeless community, Salisbury set up an outdoor camp featuring donated tents, where the homeless could live in a contained environment.

When a spring storm damaged the camp, officials secured motel housing for those who needed it.

Glanz and homeless advocates have expressed repeated concern about the plight of renters -- in the midst of the pandemic, evicted residents possibly adding to the homeless population is a problem the city doesn’t need.

There are several organizations in Salisbury -- Salisbury Neighborhood Housing Services, Habitat For Humanity of Wicomico County, the county’s Local Management Board -- which provide emergency rental assistance for those families who have lost income as a direct result of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

While there are not currently any support or assistance programs for landlords, the Salisbury Area Chamber of Commerce has been an advocate for such programs. The hope is that, as the effects of the crisis become more clear as it is winding down, programs that assist landlords will become part of state support efforts.

As the pandemic drags on, families are certainly falling further behind on their rent.

Salisbury Neighborhood Housing is able to pay up to six months of delinquent rent for residents in the city and Wicomico County.

The delinquency must be directly related to Covid-19. Advocates are seeing clients who need long-term assistance. One big problem: Tenants who have previously received rental assistance through another government program are not eligible to apply. 

Meanwhile, in Somerset County, $350,000 in direct rental assistance funds have be received from the state for distribution locally by the Department of Technical and Community Services. The first round of $100,000 was earmarked to delinquent tenants for up to three months if they had a COVID impact.

Gary Pusey, Department Director, said on average applicants were receiving $2,500. The program requires documentation and includes household income limits. A home inspection is also required to ensure the place is habitable. Six months into the program some $40,000 from round one remained unspent.

Ashley Bedsworth, the housing loan specialist who works with tenants, said applications are being approved for people who lost hours or employment due to COVID-19, or were homebound because of children. She said some have tried to apply because of loss of employment but when she checks with employers she must deny the application because the person left for non-qualifying reasons.

Bedsworth said a $50,000 grant the county received to support rent payments for up to nine months had no income limits and was less restrictive and is no longer available. Untapped is $200,000 for up to six months of rent.

For those who are unable to afford traditional rental property the Crisfield Housing Authority is an option. There are 330 units at Somers Cove and Executive Director Don Bibb is advertising to fill three-, four- and five-bedroom apartments but acknowledged families aren’t as big as they once were.

“We have vacancies but part of the problem is we don’t have people on our wait list for the larger-sized units,” he said. “Everyone wants ones or twos and those are our least available.”

In response he has a plan to work with local contractors to pare down the larger apartments into more desirable units.

Long term, Bibb is seeking grant funding to tear down five tax-delinquent houses that the county owns in Crisfield and construct affordable housing. He’s had success with this in the mid-Shore and works with builders to be sure the architecture fits the neighborhood.

The Judiciary had opened for a brief time last fall to hear landlord/tenant disputes for other causes but on Jan. 29 Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera returned courts to Phase II so failure to pay rent filings — while being accepted — are not being scheduled until after March 14 at the earliest.

A similar order regarding the cut-off of regulated utilities for non-payment was in place last year. It was modified effective Sept. 1 so termination notices could be sent starting Oct. 1 or 45 days before service would end.