Latino and Hispanic families across the nation should be celebrating the national observance of Hispanic Heritage Month, but this year Latino and Hispanic families face an eviction crisis brought about by the pandemic.
Last month Governor Larry Hogan issued a proclamation recognizing September 15 through October 15 as Hispanic Heritage Month in Maryland. National Hispanic Heritage Month is observed annually across the country and celebrates the history, culture, and contributions of American citizens whose ancestors came from Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean and Central and South America. Hispanics and Latinos make up the largest racial and ethnic minority population in the U.S., and as such, have been disproportionately impacted by the fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic.
For Latinos and Hispanic households across the country, access to public benefits like federal rental assistance and utility assistance programs means overcoming a myriad of systemic challenges. For example, for tenants with limited English proficiency, showing up to rent court means finding and enlisting the help of an interpreter to communicate with an attorney and the court in a meaningful way. Notably, for families trying to navigate the eviction crisis brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, the help of an attorney is all but necessary as issues like food and housing insecurity have worsened for vulnerable communities across the nation.
To date, billions of dollars have been made available for tenants struggling to make ends meet, but what has become clear is that rental assistance alone may not be enough to prevent evictions. Complicated eviction proceedings, application backlogs, language and literacy barriers, and poor dissemination of information make the threat of eviction all too real for many Latino and Hispanic households. Take for example the story of Johana (a hispanic resident of Prince George’s County):
- Like many Marylanders, Johana found herself struggling to make ends meet due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Despite several challenges, Johana successfully secured emergency rental assistance funds to pay her rent and stay in her home. Johana’s landlord accepted the funds and, by accepting the rental assistance funds, promised not to file any eviction claims based on failure to pay rent for 90 days. Johana’s financial issues continued as the pandemic dragged on, and Johana’s landlord began searching for other options to have her evicted despite the 90 day promise that was made. Finally, the landlord, unable to file a failure to pay rent claim, filed a threadbare breach of lease claim to have Johana evicted. Johana was called into court and she opted to represent herself pro se because she was unable to afford a lawyer. After pleading her case, Johana believed there was little else she could do, so she agreed to move out within 30 days. After the proceeding, Johana contacted Community Legal Services (CLS) of Prince George’s County because she had heard that the organization provided legal advice to people who chose to represent themselves in court. Johana also hoped to find out if there were any other steps she could take given the outcome of her eviction case. A lawyer explained that if only the case had gone to trial, the court would have noticed that the landlord was likely unable to show how Johana had breached her lease agreement in any real way. But the damage had already been done. Unable to request a new trial, Johana and her attorney did what they could to alleviate some of the hardship the mistaken judgment would inevitably cause, together they filed a motion with the court requesting additional time for her to relocate. The court granted the motion.
While a host of rules and regulations exist for tenants struggling to make rent, many tenants do not understand the legal protections available to them and, as a result, are unable to effectively assert their rights. “A lot of the tenants don’t realize that [by accepting] emergency rental assistance payments, the landlord has agreed to not evict for 90 days and that includes withdrawing any active cases that have been filed . . . we’ve seen it happen where some landlords actually show up with an attorney and try to proceed with the case,” says Jessica A. Quincosa, Executive Director at CLS of Prince George’s County.
More often than not, landlords show up to eviction proceedings with a lawyer by their side, a benefit that most tenants cannot afford. For that reason, coming out of rent court with a favorable judgement can feel impossible, for tenants facing various hardships at home. Importantly, having an attorney present at rent court can not only prevent wrongful eviction, but in many cases it can help tenants manage the hardships that may arise after an eviction judgment (e.g., displacement, financial hardship, illness, homelessness, negative rental history reporting).
“[H]aving an attorney present [at eviction proceedings] is important for so many reasons,” says Kayla Williams, Acting Supervising Attorney at CLS of Prince George’s County. Ms. Williams also oversees the Tenant Representation Program for Prince George’s and Anne Arundel County. “In Prince George’s County [for example], if a landlord accepts rental assistance funds they have to sign a contract that prohibits them from filing a failure to pay rent or tenant holding over case within 90 days after receipt of those funds. What we have seen a lot of in court is that some landlords have taken the funds but still proceeded to file a court case and oftentimes a tenant may not be aware that the landlord had to sign that contract.” As the country continues to deal with an eviction crisis brought about by the pandemic, the important work of organizations like CLS of Prince George’s has been crucial in ensuring meaningful social and legal services are available to vulnerable communities, including Latinos and Hispanic Marylanders impacted by the pandemic.
CLS of Prince George’s County has been working to educate, represent and empower low income Marylanders regarding civil legal matters since 1985. In addition to providing legal education, advice and free legal representation to self-represented litigants in Prince George’s County, CLS provides several legal programs and brief advice clinics as well, including a Latino Legal Access Clinic, a Lawyer Referral Program, a Domestic Violence Legal Wellness Program, a Foreclosure Prevention Project, a Failure to Pay Rent Tenant Representation Program, a Family Law Clinic For The Self-Represented, a Workers’ Rights Clinic, and the Suitland Law Clinic.
To learn more visit: https://www.clspgc.org
* Johana’s name has been changed to ensure respect for her privacy.