Darrell Smith Jr. handled marketing for Aqua Guard Water Proofing Corp. and worked as a publicist with clients that include a local radio disc jockey.
Those two jobs allowed the 49-year-old of College Park to pay $2,300 per month to rent a three-bedroom, two-bathroom house.
Then the coronavirus pandemic shut down the state in March. Smith became furloughed and contracts with his clients ended.
Without steady income, Smith’s landlord filed a failure to pay rent eviction notice in court to have him removed from the property.
On Friday, Nov. 13, a judge ruled in Smith’s favor. He can remain on the property. In addition, a grant of nearly $11,000 from a Prince George’s County emergency rental assistance fund paid up to six months of back rent.
“I got a victory today, but it didn’t have to be done this way,” said Smith, who currently receives $158 per week in unemployment. “Landlord tried to throw me out in the street. This is not how you treat people.”
Smith joins thousands of Marylanders who continue to face eviction proceedings, even with a moratorium in place from Sept. 4 until Dec. 31 instituted by the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention. The federal agency estimated at least 30 million people nationwide could face eviction.
“CDC issued this Order because evictions threaten to increase the spread of COVID-19,” according to a summary of the directive. “During a pandemic, calling a temporary halt to evictions can be an effective public health measure to prevent the spread of disease.”
For those who use the CDC order, a person must sign a declaration form that outlines income less than $99,000, or $198,000 for couples. A person must still pay late fees and the form doesn’t address any financial relief for landlords.
A key sentence in the two-page document warns renters: “You may also still be evicted for reasons other than not paying rent or making a housing payment.”
That’s why eviction proceedings in Prince George’s are still taking place.
Gov. Larry Hogan’s state of emergency COVID-19 order, renewed once a month since March 5, can also help people involved in certain eviction cases, said Kayla Williams, an attorney with Community Legal Services of Prince George’s County Inc.
The state addresses four types of evictions cases: failure to pay rent, tenant holding over, breach of lease and wrongful detainer. In Prince George’s, those cases are heard at the courthouse in Hyattsville.
Williams said a major loophole the CDC and state orders don’t address is tenant holding over cases. That occurs when a landlord files paperwork court in court because a tenant’s lease expired. A landlord doesn’t have to provide an explanation as long as the tenant receives a notice first.
“That’s a loophole a lot of landlords are using,” Williams said. “It can very confusing and very stressful when you see that paperwork and really don’t know what it means.”
Williams said Friday the office has received nearly 600 phone calls for landlord-tenant issues since May 4.
Since district court resumed hearing failure to pay rent cases in September, Williams said the nonprofit organization has represented Smith and another 114 clients with the majority dealing with cases filed after the state of emergency was declared in March.
“Prince Georges County is an expensive place to live in. People have accrued debt, the average rent per tenant is $1,200 to $1,400. That adds up after four, five, six months,” she said. “We are in very deep and there is no end in sight. It is very sobering.”
A representative with the Prince George’s Property Owners Association did not respond to emails and a phone call last week for comment.
On Thursday, Nov. 12, the Maryland Court of Appeals announced some civil and criminal trials will be suspended until at least January.
Courts have been operating in Phase 5 since Oct. 5 to allow courts to function with health protocols in place.
Courts moved back to Phase 3 on Monday, Nov. 16, which allow some civil and criminal hearings to continue.
Information on landlord and tenant actions is available at https://bit.ly/3eXjAJr. Failure to pay rent eviction cases are postponed in district court until at least January.
Williams, whose nonprofit organization helps residents with cases on rental disputes, bankruptcy, domestic violence and family law matters, said landlords must follow a procedure before a person gets evicted.
Here’s a summary of the process:
A landlord must file a complaint with the court. Then the court will send both tenant and landlord a summons to appear.
After an appearance, a landlord must obtain a “judgment for possession” from the court.
The landlord would obtain a warrant of restitution and finally a county sheriff would act on the warrant to oversee the eviction.
“It’s important to know that regardless of the circumstance a landlord has to file something with the court in order to evict someone, unless the tenant leaves voluntarily,” Williams said. “You are your own advocate. Educate yourself about what your rights are. If you have questions, always call an attorney.”
The coronavirus has created new legal challenges and questions such as whether local jurisdictions can issue eviction moratoriums.
Williams said from a constitutional perspective, it depends on what a moratorium may entail. Jurisdictions continue to follow the state’s COVID-19 emergency order.
County and Baltimore City officials have implemented financial assistance programs to assist residents affected by the pandemic and uses federal CARES Act funding strictly for coronavirus relief.
Before Hogan announced the state would provide $10 million in CARES Act funding for low-income residents toward rent relief, Del. Julian Ivey (D-District 47A) of Cheverly said residents need money immediately.
“We need rental relief in the form of cash payments. It just needs to be done one way or the other,” said Ivey, who’s working to help residents in his district affected by eviction proceedings.
Williams said the state funding would help, but added, “I’m cautiously excited. It is great we are getting that money, but how quickly can we get it?”
As for Smith, he’s relieved he can remain in the residence and continue to pursue employment. His case made him mentally stronger, he said, especially after he called 35 lawyers seeking help.
“[Williams] was the only person who called me back and was consistent,” said Smith, who lives with his fiancé who’s also unemployed. “I started crying when she came with me to the courtroom. She is for the community and was with me through this process. Unfortunately, this pandemic may be with us for a while, too.”
For residents in need of legal assistance, call Community Legal Services at 240-391-6370.