Maryland Communities United members make their voices heard on Facebook livestream. (Courtesy Photo)

By J.K.Schmid
Special to the AFRO

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced a sweeping moratorium on evictions across the country, Sept. 2.

“In the context of a pandemic, eviction moratoria like quarantine, isolation and social distancing, can be an effective public health measure utilized to prevent the spread of communicable disease,” the agency order reads. “Eviction moratoria facilitate self-isolation by people who become ill or who are at risk for severe illness from COVID-19 due to an underlying medical condition.”

The declaration comes as U.S. COVID-19 cases cross 5.5 million and continue to climb. CDC reported over 170,000 U.S. COVID-19 deaths.

Published alongside the order is a declaration renters can sign to seek relief from their landlord. Signing the declaration includes affirmations that the tenant has sought all other government relief (federal, state, city, etc.), expects to make no more than $99,000 (or $198,000 when filing a joint tax return), has received a stimulus check or has experienced substantial loss of income, among many other declarations.

The moratorium ends Dec. 31.

However, Maryland renters may not be enjoying the fullest protections offered by the federal order. Sept 4, Maryland Courts announced that eviction cases will resume as part of Gov. Larry Hogan’s announcement that the state will be entering Phase 4 of reopening.

“I am not happy with the interpretation at all,” said Charisse Lue, an attorney with Public Justice Center’s (PJC) Human Right to Housing Project. “The interpretation basically makes the CDC’s order an affirmative defense, rather than what it was intended to do: actually prevent landlords from filing the complaint until Jan. 1.”

The CDC order specifically cites the CARES Act blanket moratorium on eviction filings as part of its rationale to stop further evictions and thus stopping the spread of a deadly disease.

“This makes it so the landlord can still file the complaint and the tenant still has to come into court and defend themselves,” Lue continued. “And the judge has to agree that the person did all these things. And then, they still will receive a judgement, but the court will delay the execution of the warrant.”

“They did the absolute worst interpretation of the CDC’s order,” Lue said.

The interpretation exposes renters, landlords and even the court system to many risks as hearings will be in person in poorly ventilated court houses. Further, renters will have to secure representation on already strained budgets and even if they prevail in court, a judgment hangs over their heads for months only to come due Jan. 1.

Lue made her interpretation and remarks at a Sept. 5 Maryland Communities United meeting. Before “Defund the Police” became a term du jour in response to mounting instances of police violence, Communities United had already presented Baltimore CIty Council with a “People’s Budget” asking for the “freedom to thrive” and cuts to the Baltimore police budget that would allow the expansion and resumption of social and human city services.

The Aspen Institute estimates 320,000 Maryland renters are at risk of eviction by the end of the 2020 fourth quarter, and figured that has doubled since the beginning of the year. Baltimore’s renting population hovers around 50 percent of 620,000 city residents.

Citing a statistic that Black women are evicted at a rate 296 percent higher than White men, and facing a “tsunami of evictions,” PJC attorney Matt Hill reports “racial disparity makes eviction a civil rights issue linked to the legacy of segregation and housing practices directed against persons of color.”