As Maryland’s share of an unprecedented $46 billion in federal rental assistance funds dries up, housing advocates statewide are demanding action from the State House to stave off a feared rise in evictions.

In a letter Tuesday, a coalition of dozens of advocacy groups and local officials — including Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott and the county executives of Anne Arundel, Howard, Montgomery and Baltimore counties — called on Gov. Larry Hogan to provide $175 million in state funds to extend the emergency rental assistance program through June 2024.

“The termination of the state’s rental assistance programs comes at a time when Maryland families are facing record rent increases and continued economic instability and will most certainly lead to a spike in the number of families — predominantly Black and Latine – experiencing eviction and homelessness,” the groups wrote.

Maryland received over $755 million from the federal program, established by Congress in 2021 to help prevent the flood of evictions that many tenants and advocates feared as the pandemic waned, the economy slowed down and eviction moratoriums ended. More than 82,000 Maryland households had received funds through June 30, the most recent data available from the state.

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But in recent months, as funds dwindled, some jurisdictions have paused intake: Baltimore County stopped accepting new applicants in July, Howard County’s funds were exhausted as of Aug. 15. The nonprofit administering rental assistance in Anne Arundel County shut down the county’s waiting list in November, and now provides assistance only to tenants whose evictions have been authorized by the court or scheduled by the sheriff’s office and who have not received previous assistance. The city of Baltimore’s application portal was still open Tuesday, but officials in September said they expected funds to be fully depleted by early 2023. The city has struggled in recent months to keep up with a high volume of applications from tenants facing imminent eviction, subjecting some residents and landlords to protracted delays.

At the same time, eviction rates have approached or surpassed pre-pandemic levels in some jurisdictions. In Anne Arundel County, for example, 403 evictions took place from June through October of this year, compared with 352 over the same period in 2019, even with rental assistance funds still being distributed.

Before the pandemic, the Community Assistance Network, a Baltimore County nonprofit, typically worked with fewer than 200 households facing eviction per year. The organization had handled more than 500 cases in 2022 as of Dec. 8.

“Earlier on there was a lot of talk about the ‘tsunami of evictions,’ but the safeguard was in place with the moratorium and then the availability of this money,” said Mitch Posner, executive director of the organization. “Now that those safeguards are no longer in place, it’s possible that that prediction is going to come true later rather that sooner.”

The letter to Hogan, a Republican, has been signed by nine elected officials.

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“There are many things coming together economically that are making it exceedingly difficult for people who are in rental housing,” said state Sen. Shelly Hettleman, a Baltimore County Democrat who signed onto the letter, citing inflation, rental housing costs and high mortgage rates. Without additional funding for rental assistance, Hettleman said, “We’re going to hear more from constituents who are out on the street.”

The letter comes as Hogan prepares to hand off his draft budget proposal to Gov.-elect Wes Moore, a Democrat whose first budget is due just two days after his inauguration on Jan. 18.

In a statement, Hogan’s spokesman Michael Ricci wrote that, anticipating the depletion of funding, the state Department of Housing and Community Development has “reached out to local jurisdictions to talk through various funding options that would leverage other federal relief programs.” Additionally, the housing agency “plans to award remaining funds early next year to assist in this transition, and will continue to make legal services available through 2023 as well.”

“In a similar way, I encourage the local officials who signed this letter to detail for their constituents the steps that they have taken to prepare for this transition,” he added.

In a response to the letter shared with The Banner, Moore’s spokesman, Carter Elliott, said the incoming administration is “committed to expanding affordable housing access.”

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“As we confront the risk of austere fiscal times ahead, Governor-Elect Moore will meet this moment with leadership and work with community leaders, local officials, and all appropriate stakeholders to ensure that Maryland families have the support and stability that a home provides,” Elliott said.

The coalition is calling on the state to allocate $175 million to the emergency rental assistance program in the fiscal year 2024 budget to assist the 17,000 households that the coalition estimated will face eviction that year based on application-rate projections by Harvard researchers as well as census data on rental delinquencies and housing costs in Maryland. In addition to the $175 million budget allocation, leftover American Rescue Plan or budget surplus funds should be used to support the program through the rest of the fiscal year ending June 30, said Matt Hill, an attorney with the Public Justice Center, one of the groups that signed onto the letter.

The group is part of a nationwide effort, supported by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, to preserve emergency rental assistance funding.

Advocates say that without the funding, the state will lose the emergency-housing infrastructure that nonprofits and jurisdictions set up at unprecedented scale during the pandemic.

“We seem to get caught off guard any time there is a global financial crisis or recession, as though it’s never happened before or couldn’t have been predicted. And each time, we find ourselves needing to reinvent the wheel, stand up emergency housing response programs from scratch,” said Scott Gottbreht, vice president of housing for the United Way of Central Maryland, one of the signatories on the letter. “Since the pandemic, this exact sort of infrastructure has now been created and fine-tuned.” But without additional funding, he said, “we stand to lose all of that.”

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Ben Frederick, a real estate broker and property manager in Baltimore, said that while the emergency rental assistance program was useful early in the pandemic, he believes the program’s effectiveness has been limited by delays and the requirements that it imposed on landlords. In Baltimore, landlords who accept rental assistance are required to sign an agreement not to evict the tenant for 90 days after receiving the funds. He said those requirements can put landlords at financial risk, especially given the city’s delays in processing the funds.

“Landlords are not going to wait around on some promise from some government agency that maybe you’ll get the money — and by the way, you can’t take any action in the meantime,” said Frederick, arguing that any continuation of the program should minimize both delays and strings attached for landlords.

And, he argued, spending on programs like emergency rental assistance contributed to the high inflation that is now making it difficult for renters to keep up with bills.

“Now we have as full employment as you can get — there are plenty of jobs out there,” Frederick said.

However, some tenants who have used rental assistance during the pandemic say that the crisis isn’t over.

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After Kaylah Walker, 22, lost her job as a certified nursing assistant in the summer of 2021 while her agency’s workload fell along with COVID infections, keeping up on the rent for her Towson apartment became a constant challenge. “I was scared I was going to be put on the street with my child,” said Walker, who was four months pregnant when she began receiving eviction notices.

Ultimately, rental assistance that covered months of back rent prevented her fears from becoming reality.

Walker has since started a new job as a patient care technician but she says keeping up with the rent is still difficult on her salary, and she worries for others who may not have access to the assistance funds she did. “Rent is increasing, food prices are increasing, gas prices are increasing,” Walker said. “There’s no way that everybody can afford their rent, to eat, and to live without needing help.”

sophie.kasakove@thebaltimorebanner.com

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