Ensuring full and continuous state funding for Maryland’s Access to Counsel in Evictions (ACE) Program is the Access to Justice Commission’s (A2JC) top priority during the 2023 legislative session; it is one of the MSBA’s primary goals as well. Funding for ACE was one of the issues that MSBA members and A2JC supporters spoke to legislators about on MSBA Day on January 24, 2023. In addition, the A2JC and the MSBA provided written and oral testimony in support of the passage of HB1050/SB756, which aim to impose permanent requirements that the Comptroller distribute $14 million from the Abandoned Property Fund to the ACE Special Fund and that this appropriation is included in the Governor’s annual budget as an appropriation for the Maryland Legal Services Corporation (MLSC). Passage of HB1050/SB756 will provide a stable and continuous source of state funding for the ACE Program to make it effective at keeping Marylanders housed.
In her written testimony, Reena Shah, Executive Director of the A2JC, noted:
“In passing HB18 in 2021, the Maryland General Assembly sought to address the myriad of personal and societal challenges posed by evictions by adopting a recognized and cost-effective eviction prevention strategy – access to legal representation – that had been proven in other jurisdictions to reduce disruptive displacement of families as well as the attendant social, economic and public health costs to society at large.
Indeed, jurisdictions that have enacted right-to-counsel laws before the pandemic, like New York City, saw drastic reductions in evictions – without any of the other factors that have aided in eviction prevention since the pandemic – including moratoriums and rental assistance. In New York City, 86% of represented tenants remained in their homes, and eviction filings decreased by 30% just through the provision of counsel.”
Shah then explained why fully funding the ACE Program is critical:
“It is not an understatement to say that successful Program implementation hinges on continued and stable funding. While last year’s challenge was the complete lack of funding, this year’s challenge is to identify a stable and continuing source of state funding that will enable progress towards full implementation by October 1, 2025, and allow for maintenance of the Program subsequent to that. Currently, the Program is funded with a mix of federal and state funds, but as federal funds expire, investment of state funds is necessary in order for us to realize the benefits of an ACE Program.
Fluctuations that come from intermittent funding sources will have deleterious impacts on staffing levels, outreach and evaluation efforts, and more. Without sufficient funding on an on-going basis, full implementation of the Program will not be possible, resulting in many low-income Marylanders needing to navigate complex eviction cases on their own, without legal representation.”
MSBA Advocacy Director Shaoli Katana offered written testimony urging the General Assembly to pass HB1050/SB756 as well. Katana explained the benefits of the ACE Program, stating:
“Financial constraints are one of the largest obstacles for civil legal aid providers to serve low-income communities. Funding for legal services for all Marylanders is one of the MSBA’s top legislative priorities, and the ACE Program is a beneficial, cost-effective access to justice solution for the state. Providing legal representation for renters facing eviction helps to keep them in their homes and also prevents other consequences, including homelessness, physical and mental health issues, job loss, and overall economic instability. Tenant representation can also lead to lower costs for emergency housing and law enforcement.
The complexities of the civil justice system were further increased by the pandemic, and unrepresented litigants have found even more challenges with access, fairness, equity, and adequate resources in court. In landlord-tenant cases, the majority of tenants are unrepresented, while most landlords appear with counsel. The value of having one of Maryland’s 42,000 attorneys in court representing a tenant during an eviction proceeding is undeniable. An attorney can help tenants stay in their homes and also provide much-needed analysis and advice when an eviction cannot be avoided.”
Katana also offered insight into the positive outcomes that fully funding the ACE Program could have, noting:
“Continued funding of the ACE Program will yield a fairer system of justice and more efficient court processes. Attorneys can remove eviction filings from public records, coordinate secondary housing options or negotiate additional time to move out, apply for rental assistance, reduce or remove fees to a landlord, and more. Tenants with counsel are more likely to receive a favorable judgment, avoid future eviction cases, and receive regular updates on the law and court procedures. Court dockets will be positively impacted by the addition of counsel to help settle and litigate eviction matters.”
The A2JC and MSBA strongly support access to justice for Marylanders and continued funding for civil legal aid. You can learn more about their efforts to shape legislation by visiting the A2JC website and MSBA Advocacy.