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The Tsunami of Evictions is Around the Corner,  There is Still Time to Course-Correct

By Reena Shah, JD, MPA, executive director, Maryland Access to Justice Commission and vice chair of the Maryland Attorney General’s COVID-19 Task Force on Access to Justice

A ban on evictions, a key public health protection put in place by Maryland leaders when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, is set to expire at the end of this week. It is unsafe, inequitable and not a good use of tax-payer dollars for evictions or eviction cases to resume at this time. Rental assistance coupled with increased funding for civil legal aid is a more prudent and humane investment.

The impact of evictions is far-ranging and damages every aspect of a person’s and their family’s life. In addition to the crippling reality of losing a home during a global pandemic – evictions will worsen educational inequities; hurt people’s ability to get re-employed; ruin credit scores; and aggravate the toll on mental health.

Evictions will also continue to be hazardous to personal and public health. Maryland’s coronavirus cases are spiking, local health officials are calling for renewed restrictions and some of our school districts have already deemed it unsafe to return to in-person schooling until January 2021. It is never a good time to start rendering people homeless, but doing so now seems particularly ill-considered. The same health data that lead to the hold on evictions, still applies. Housing still equals health.  

And. Black. Lives. Matter. The first instance of police brutality encountered by many communities of color is the brutality of an eviction carried out by law enforcement. Recent studies have highlighted that eviction is not just a matter of poverty, but race too, as a majority of black neighborhoods face higher rates of eviction, even after controlling for poverty and income. In Baltimore City, which has four times the national average of evictions, black women are 296 percent more likely to get evicted than white men. This is a time to correct harms caused by structural racism, not exacerbate them. 

In addition to a moral cost, evictions cost money. When evictions resume next Monday, the government will spend tax-payer dollars to have law enforcement evict families; and then will spend more public money to ensure that those same families are sheltered, hopefully with appropriate social distancing. In a month, when hearings on the most voluminous types of eviction cases resume, and evictions hit tsunami levels, so will the costs and despair.

We still have time to course-correct and must do so immediately.

First, extend the ban on evictions. The pandemic is raging and there is not a clear plan on what the government will do when evictions start. The Aspen Institute predicts as many as 330,000 Marylanders are at risk of being evicted by year’s end. We need more time. 

Second, continue to invest in rental assistance and fix the backlog of unemployment claims. The $30M that Governor Hogan put into rental assistance, in addition to what some counties have announced on their own, should be considered a start. More than 625,000 Marylanders have filed for unemployment insurance and many have still not been able to get through to apply. The hopes of an economic recovery are growing dimmer, and the only way to address the needs of those who have lost all ability to pay is through rental assistance, which will  keep tenants housed and landlords afloat. 

Third, invest in civil legal aid. Civil legal aid is a front-line program that provides free legal assistance to people with limited means navigate  civil justice challenges. Civil legal aid has been helping Marylanders navigate a range of civil legal problems throughout the pandemic, including helping people secure unemployment and food benefits; warding off illegal evictions; stopping wage garnishments of stimulus payments; protecting those facing abuse; helping create life and health planning documents, and much more. 

Eviction is a civil legal problem. Even before the pandemic, there were over 650,000 Failure to Pay Rent cases every year. With over 625,000 unemployment claims filed since the start of the pandemic, many Marylanders who never needed to engage with the civil justice system will now need help. 

Repeated studies have shown that many evictions happen, not because the tenant did anything wrong, but because they do not have a lawyer to defend them. In fact, nearly 99 percent of tenants in Maryland do not have legal representation in court, in comparison to 96 percent of landlords who have some form of representation. The 1 percent of tenants that do have a lawyer avoid disruptive displacement 92 percent of the time.

Self-represented litigants were already at a disadvantage in eviction cases, but the COVID-19 legal landscape is fraught with complexity brought on by differences in relief, laws, and technology across each jurisdiction. If eviction hearings that usually take place in crowded courtrooms become primarily remote, many low-income tenants will face additional barriers to justice, including not being able to access court-based legal services or technology barriers, that might impede their ability to participate in a hearing in a meaningful way.  It will be necessary to ensure that people get the legal help they need to navigate this even more challenging terrain.

Unfortunately, even before the pandemic, we were meeting about 20 percent of the need for civil legal services.  Now the need is exponentially rising at a time when the primary funder for civil legal aid in Maryland is facing revenue declines upwards of 70%.  As civil legal needs continue to mount, state and local leaders should fund civil legal aid as an essential part of the state’s front-line response and use time-limited CARES Act funding to put in place eviction defense and other civil legal aid programs to stem the tide.

Maryland leaders still have an opportunity to course-correct and avoid mass evictions and displacement by following these measures: extending the ban on evictions; investing more in rental assistance; and investing in civil legal aid.

Here is an article from the New York Times Editorial Board that urges leadership and action on evictions: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/23/opinion/coronavirus-evictions-rent.html?action=click&module=Opinion&pgtype=Homepage