State lawmakers propose another housing justice package

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

A bill passed last year created a program to ensure the presence of lawyers for tenants facing eviction, called “access to a lawyer”.

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

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

Cristina Carranza, a tenant in Prince George’s County, told a virtual press conference that the money for lawyers would help her keep her place and that of her children. Carranza received an eviction notice during the pandemic.

“I’ve never been behind on my rent,” Carranza said through a translator. “During the pandemic, I lost my job. But for the rental office and management, it didn’t matter.

Lisa Sarro, general counsel for Arundel Community Development Services (ACDS), said the Anne Arundel County Lawyer Access Program has proven “helpful time and time again.”

“We’re hoping we’ll get some state funding for this program because it’s hard for counties to afford it on their own,” Sarro said.

Sen. Shelly Hettleman, a Democrat from Baltimore County, is sponsoring two of this year’s housing program bills, one of which would require landlords to show proof of a valid rental license if they wish to make expedited deportation procedures.

“We want to make sure landlords meet 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 don’t follow the law on their end,” says Hettleman.

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

Sarro said ACDS has helped prevent evictions for more than 1,600 households since March 2021, using $20 million in emergency housing assistance funds. But that money doesn’t always come out as quickly as tenants need it.

“It’s really hard work getting that money out. And we’re not the only struggling county,” Sarro said.

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

Tenant advocates have argued that such legislation would close a loophole that landlords have used to evict tenants who are in arrears with rent.

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

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

Zafar Shah of the Public Justice Center pointed out that without tenant protection, those primarily hurt will be people of color.

“We have already heard in this legislative session that there has been no tsunami of evictions, that there is 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 the answer to that narrative is to look at who is being left behind in this economic recovery.”

According to a US Census Household Pulse Survey, in January, 131,813 tenants in Maryland believe they are very likely or somewhat likely to be evicted in the next two months. The majority of these tenants are Latino or black and live with children.

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