Despite an unprecedented amount of federal pandemic aid pouring into the state to help renters catch up on overdue payments, as many as 3,900 Baltimore tenants with evictions looming are waiting on city officials to distribute the money, according to the agency tasked with managing the program.

Only about 40% of the $753 million earmarked to help Maryland renters who got sick and lost jobs and income over the past two years has been committed, according to the latest state data. Changing federal requirements, paperwork problems and COVID-19 staffing challenges have delayed progress.

County agencies are prioritizing applicants with scheduled eviction hearings, and state lawmakers are pushing for legislation that could give renters more time. But with demand so acute and need so high, some tenants — and the activists, attorneys and lawmakers who represent them — fear the money may come too late for the most vulnerable.

“A lot of challenges in the beginning came from building the infrastructure to distribute it,” said Danielle Meister, senior policy officer at the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development. “This is an incredible tool to help people, but the first time we’ve done something like this before.”

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Baltimore resident Deric Strickland said he and his family applied for rental assistance in August while standing at the “edge of eviction.” He told Maryland lawmakers at a committee hearing in Annapolis last month that he quit his warehouse job during the pandemic to care for his daughters while his wife picked up extra shifts at a grocery store and restaurant.

It wasn’t enough to make ends meet, Strickland said, and they leaned on friends and family for loans. While they waited for their rental assistance claim to process, Strickland said, their landlord continued to post eviction notices on the apartment door — sometimes more than once a day.

“We couldn’t help but feel attacked,” he said. “When you’re in a situation like that, you can’t help but be anxious to get a response.”

Since then, Strickland used the aid to pay back rent, though he still must pay off the private loans he received — an experience shared by many others who are still digging themselves out of the pandemic.

Falling through the cracks

Across the state, at least 77,000 applications for emergency rental assistance have been submitted, which may include duplicate applications from the same household, according to the latest figures.

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The state has assisted close to 45,000 households, data shows. Of those who have received emergency rental assistance, 70% are Black and 70% are female, according to state data, mirroring national trends. Another 10% are listed as Hispanic or Latino.

In some parts of the state, agencies have stopped accepting new applications.

In Baltimore County, for example, no new rental assistance requests have been accepted since March 1, and the county’s website advises those who have already applied to “continue monitoring phone calls and emails.” State data shows officials have distributed nearly all of the $24 million in aid they received.

The lengthy delays have already forced some people out of their homes.

Baltimore renter J.B., who asked to be identified by his initials to maintain anonymity while he searches for work, found an eviction notice on the ground by his door in January. Only then did city officials escalate his case to the top of the queue, according to a record of his application.

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“I can say with a lot of certainty that my issues came from a delay in processing my paperwork,” said J.B., who lived near Park Heights.

Now living in transitional housing in Northeast Baltimore, J.B. said he suffers from chronic pain caused by a car accident in 2016. He received about $8,000 in back rent assistance in 2020, which covered about eight months’ worth of payments.

He was out of work for so long that by the time the city processed his second rental assistance application, his overdue rent exceeded the amount of aid for which he was eligible. When the city told him the aid wouldn’t cover his debt, he had just over a week before his scheduled eviction this winter and no way to repay his rent.

“Now I have a $12,000 eviction over my head,” he said. “It makes it doubly harder to find a place to stay.”

A person holds a sign emphasizing the difference between government funding for police and housing during a protest organized by Communities United outside the Charles R. Benton Jr. Building in Baltimore on Wednesday, March 30, 2022. (PAMELA WOOD)

‘A little grace’

Counties are working with courts and sheriff’s offices to escalate cases for those with eviction notices, but it’s not a uniform procedure across all 24 jurisdictions. Not all cases are digitized, and those that are tend to be slow to appear online and may not be up to date, said Lisa Sarro, general counsel at Arundel Community Development Services.

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“The sheriffs have thankfully provided us with their eviction schedule so we know where and when evictions are going to happen,” Sarro said during testimony in Annapolis. “But we have no idea who is going to be evicted.”

State and federal bans on some evictions expired last year, and courts now are working to clear the backlog.

More than 700 people per month on average were evicted statewide over a six-month period ending in December 2021, according to Maryland District Court figures. In January, 600 total evictions took place, including 216 city residents. More than 4,000 failure to pay cases were filed in the city that month.

Baltimore has spent about $45 million of nearly $82 million in emergency rental assistance since December 2020, assisting more than 6,000 households out of 27,000 applications, state and city data shows. Faith P. Leach, deputy mayor of equity, health and human services, said bringing on extra staffers and consultants has helped relieve some of the strain.

“The city has the money, but they are overwhelmed with requests for funding,” said C. Matthew Hill, an attorney with the Public Justice Center in Baltimore. Although there have been improvements, he said, “Things need to move more quickly.”

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The Public Justice Center is pushing for statewide legislation that would pause evictions for tenants waiting on rental assistance payments; it passed the Senate and is awaiting a final vote in the House.

State Sen. Shelly Hettleman, the bill’s sponsor, said it would provide renters with “a little grace.”

The bill could mandate up to a 35-day pause on evictions, Hettleman said, if someone has made a “good-faith effort” to apply for rental assistance before or within 30 days of a landlord filing a complaint.

The Maryland Multi-Housing Association, which lobbies on behalf of rental property owners, does not oppose the bill, said Grason Wiggins, the association’s senior manager of government affairs.

The bill is poised for a final vote as early as Friday.

No other options

City residents behind on rent can receive up to 15 months of assistance from the Mayor’s Office of Children and Family Success. They also may qualify for security deposit payments up to $2,000 per household and three months of forward rent.

Those who are evicted, such as J.B., have found few other sources of housing aid.

An affordable housing waitlist run by the Housing Authority of Baltimore City has about 10,000 people in the queue. And it can take up to 150 days for the Baltimore Mayor’s Office of Homeless Services to house someone, according to the agency.

But more resources are on the way: Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott announced last month a $90.4 million investment of federal relief dollars in homeless services, specifically for the acquisition of two additional hotels as emergency housing sites, the creation of permanent supportive housing units and an increase in the volume of rent assistance available. In March, he said he would allocate an additional $100 million to other housing needs such as reducing vacancy and blight and increasing the affordable housing stock.

Still, J.B. worries that his eviction will keep him trapped in a “cycle of poverty” that will be difficult to overcome.

“Your head is on a swivel,” said J.B. “It’s like, what’s going to happen next?”

Read more: What Baltimore-area homebuyers can expect this spring

Hallie Miller covers housing for The Baltimore Banner. She's previously covered city and regional services, business and health at both The Banner and The Baltimore Sun.

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