Attorney Carisa Hatfield told a short story about a client named “Holly” from Baltimore City who got evicted from her apartment in August, one month before the eviction moratorium became lifted nationwide.
Holly, a human trafficking survivor, has lived in and out of homeless shelters since September and increased her exposure to COVID-19 due to housing instability.
“If Holly had been able to stay in her unit, she would not be facing housing instability and increased exposure to COVID-19,” said Hatfield, who works with the Homeless Persons Representation Project based in Baltimore. “We all are searching for [ways] to maintain stable housing…”
Hatfield and other housing advocates, financial representatives and a chief judge testified at a virtual hearing Monday of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee on the effects of housing during the coronavirus pandemic.
Although confirmed cases continue to rise in the state, evictions continue to take place in the state’s District Court.
Between July 1 and Nov. 30, about 2,547 evictions have been executed in Maryland, according to Chief Judge John Morrissey.
Morrissey said the majority of evictions before September are from cases filed before the pandemic affected the state in mid-March.
The figures decreased in October to 653 and in November to 511 because of restrictions in court operations, he said.
Morrissey said the court’s biggest court filings deal with failure to pay rent cases that average about 55,000 per month.
A decrease in evictions may occur after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention extended an eviction moratorium through Jan. 31.
In addition, Gov. Larry Hogan issued a state of emergency as an added measure to restrict them during the pandemic.
However, housing advocates insist landlords use a major loophole from both the state and CDC orders to continue eviction proceedings.
Maryland District Court remains in phase two operations until March 14, but four tenant/landlord cases may continue: rent escrow, emergency breach, wrongful detainer and tenant holding over.
The tenant holding over case allows a landlord to file paperwork in court when a tenant’s lease expired. In addition, a landlord isn’t required to provide an explanation as long as the tenant receives a notice first.
Erin Bradley, vice president of government affairs for the Apartment and Office Building Association of Metropolitan Washington, said the best way continues to be communication. About 20 percent of the organization’s members reside in Prince George’s County and 17 percent in neighboring Montgomery County.
“We recommend that residents come to property management staff as soon as possible to discuss payment options, the issues they’re facing and what options are available to them,” she said. “If they open the dialogue early…to not fall on last resort efforts.”
Another suggestion would be reforming the eviction process through a holistic approach such as mediation between a landlord and tenant before a civil suit gets filed in court.
Five state senators are working on legislation to allow renters to be represented by housing attorneys to assist in legal matters.
“We propose the District Court not just be a court of collections, but a hub for holistic problem solving [and] facilitating service triage,” said Zafar Shah, attorney with Public Justice Center in Baltimore. “That is a best practice we have seen.”
State Sen. Robert Cassilly (R-Harford County) said there’s nothing wrong in going to court.
“The system’s we’ve got where we encourage the landlord to go into court promptly is not a bad thing,” he said. “Because you’re in court, we hold landlords’ feet to the fire. They [judges] really do pay attention to the needs of both the tenants and the landlords who are in need as well.”