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THE MARYLAND ACCESS TO JUSTICE COMMISSION (A2JC) has been deeply involved in the collective work of advocating for the passage and funding of the transformational statewide access to counsel in evictions law. This law has the potential to help the hundreds of thousands of Marylanders who navigate the complex legal eviction maze on their own. Similar laws in other jurisdictions have proved to significantly reduce eviction and the harm from the attendant collateral consequences that may stem from the loss of a home.

As implementation of the law begins, A2JC remains deeply involved in monitoring the implementation of the law to ensure that the law succeeds in its primary goal – i.e. to keep Marylanders housed. Tapped by former Attorney General, Brian Frosh, the Executive Director of A2JC, Reena Shah, is serving as the chair of the legislatively mandated Access to Counsel in Evictions Task Force, which delivered its second annual report to the Governor and legislature just before January 1 of this year. Composed of landlords, tenants, community groups, civil legal aid organizations, funders and representatives from the state bar and judiciary, the Task Force’s role is to monitor the status of implementation of the ACE law and make policy, statutory or other reform recommendations to ensure ACE is successfully implemented.

After hearing from all the varied stakeholders involved in the implementation of the law, including the Maryland Legal Services Corporation, civil legal aid organizations, the judiciary and the Department of Housing and Community Development, among others, the Task Force identified threats to successful implementation and made several important recommendations that would help the law deliver on its promise. The key findings and recommendations of the Task Force are summarized below. Many of the recommendations that require statutory changes have been converted to bills that are legislative priorities of the Task Force and A2JC.

HOW DOES THE ACE LAW AFFECT REAL MARYLANDERS? MEET MS. E.

Ms. E contacted Community Legal Services (CLS), just 3 days before her scheduled eviction. She is a single disabled woman who is living with her two teenage children.

Ms. E had been in and out of the hospital for months with several serious medical conditions and she was still not doing well. The sole source of household income for the family was her Social Security Disability Insurance. Due to her illness and multiple hospitalizations, Ms. E missed hearing dates and deadlines. Her housing subsidy had been terminated without her knowledge leaving her responsible for a monthly rent amount that exceeded her monthly income.

Tenants with subsidized housing are required to recertify based on their subsidy. Applications are usually mailed a few months before, but during the pandemic the mail was inconsistent and many Marylanders never received or were notified of their recertification. With all the moratoriums and pandemic news, some tenants never realized they missed their recertification and were incorrectly terminated. Once the tenants correct the recertification, they are still qualified for their subsidy. This ensures continued housing for most of our clients.

The CLS attorney was able to slow down the eviction by filing an emergency motion in the District Court. The CLS attorney also represented Ms. E in the administrative process which resulted in the reinstatement of Ms. E’s housing assistance.

From the time of Ms. E’s first contact with CLS, the case took five months to conclude. It required a comprehensive working knowledge of federal housing and disability law in addition to state law, and dogged determination and persistence by the CLS attorney. And it is not an anomaly.

CLS has represented multiple clients where it is necessary to untangle the court process from the administrative process and restores subsidies or assist clients in challenging incorrect rent determinations. The cases are difficult and time-consuming but are well worth the effort. Even where a tenancy cannot be preserved, it is critical to preserve the federal subsidy since without financial assistance, families with some of the greatest needs will needlessly experience homelessness. Find more tenant stories HERE.

ACE TF KEY FINDINGS AND RECOMMENDATIONS:

As pointedly highlighted in the Task Force Report:

“As planning and implementation of the ACE Program gets underway, it is important to reiterate and underscore at the outset the need for an effective ACE Program. As we transition away from pandemic era protections, including the depletion of federal emergency rental assistance by spring 2023, the ACE Program is poised to serve as the strongest bulwark against the expected rise in case filings and evictions.”

The ACE law took effect in October, 2021, without funding. Almost a year later, after advocacy with the legislature and the Governor, advocates achieved funding through FY2024. The Task Force was unequivocal in stating that its top recommendation was permanent and ongoing State funding for the ACE law to ensure continuity and confidence in building and implementing the ACE Program.

Additional recommendations include:

  • Creating consistency in the District Court experience across jurisdictions to ensure Marylanders can meaningfully access counsel;
  • Raising the pay of ACE staff to attract and retain talent necessary to implement the law;
  • Developing a real-time eviction data hub that enables an equity analysis;
  • Enforcing the use of form DC-CV-115, the court-mandated 10-day pre-filing notice; and
  • Employing a broad-reaching and data-informed outreach strategy to ensure that those Marylanders in need of help can find it and can reach out for help through a centralized number, 211.