By J. K. Schmid
Special to the AFRO

The AFRO reported on a number of bills that passed both houses, overrode vetoes and were sure to help a broad swath of Marylanders.

But now, with no sign of Maryland’s legislative body returning to session, despite ongoing sickness, mounting deaths and a strained economy as a result of COVID-19, the AFRO seeks to visit and review the issues where many Marylanders remain in lurch.

Of concern in this writing is the sheaf of 2021 bills drafted for the purpose of protecting renters that did not come to a vote and/or died in committee.

The Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) moratorium on evictions has been extended to June 30, however, Maryland lifted its “pause” on evictions July 25, 2020.

While the general assumption would be that federal law reigns supreme over state law, Maryland courts, citing the state’s entrance in “Phase V” of reopening, have begun scheduling new eviction hearings as of April 26.

The CDC order, in summary, reads:

“ landlord, owner of a residential property, or other person with a legal right to pursue eviction or possessory action, shall not evict any covered person from any residential property in any jurisdiction to which this Order applies during the effective period of the Order.”

And yet, Maryland courts move to hear and schedule cases.

The extension, signed by CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky states no other reason for the extension save “evictions of tenants could be detrimental to public health control measures to slow the spread of SARS-Cov-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.”

As of May 9, Maryland reports over 450,000 COVID cases and 8,851 deaths.

As of May 6, an eviction tracker tool, pulling from the American Community Survey’s 2018 statistics, counts 1.8 million Maryland renters.

Stout, a Chicago-based investment bank, estimated 100-200,000 Maryland renters were at risk of eviction and further estimated 40-70,000 evictions filed and renters unhoused when the CDC moratorium ended. Stout’s data is taken from a November 2020 survey.

“It’s an absolute disaster,” Matt Losak said. Mr. Losak is the executive director of Montgomery County Renters Alliance. “The 200,000 figure is a countable figure. There is an uncountable figure that extends beyond that. And that is of the people who will self-evict. People who are receiving threatening notices to vacate from landlord lawyers, from the landlords themselves. Who believe, mistakenly, that those notices have force of law, which they do not.”

“One of the reasons why the Center for Disease Control has put out an eviction order, is because there is a relationship between evictions and virus spread,” Losak said. “The Maryland General Assembly has abandoned its responsibility to keep us all safe, by keeping people stable and housed and on the other hand, they have simply ignored the humanitarian, financial and economic impact of having so many people destabilized. This will go well beyond the individual pain of a person or a family who is forced out of their home.”

Maryland’s renter population continues to climb, year after year, now approaching 40%. In 2007, Maryland renters made up between 20% and 25% of its population.

The sharp shift in demographics leads Losak to conclude just cause eviction and rent stabilization can’t be put off and denied forever. As homeownership dwindles and landlords find themselves with more and more properties and people’s livelihoods concentrated into their hands, democracy has to prevail.

“That’s what’s gonna happen in Maryland, the question is when,” Losak said. “Two things have to happen alongside each other, one is that the population of renters keeps increasing, and it’s going to, that’s one. And the other is that they need to be conscious of themselves and organized.”

In the meantime, hundreds of thousands of renters face the forked crises of eviction and COVID exposure: homelessness, illness and death.

“If you’re a student of the Civil Rights Movement, you know it didn’t happen overnight,” Losak said. “We pick ourselves up, and we keep going and keep going forward. We will certainly do our best to make sure that they understand the consequences of their inaction, and hopefully, those of good faith will increase their consciousness of this issue and will act for the betterment of Maryland residents next time.”