For Sheila Riley and her family, the difference between remaining housed and homelessness came down to whether a rental assistance check would arrive in time.

Riley and her husband had applied for funds in April after the couple lost their jobs early in the pandemic and struggled to get back on their feet. But for months, their West Baltimore apartment’s property management company failed to either fill out its half of the application, or to formally decline the funds. That would have allowed the Mayor’s Office of Children & Family Success, which oversees the city’s rental assistance funds, to make out the check directly to the Rileys.

With their eviction date of Aug. 9 fast approaching, the Rileys’ legal aid attorney reached out to the city multiple times in July asking them to hasten the process. The city said that they made several unsuccessful attempts to reach the Rileys in August.

Finally, the landlord formally declined to accept the funds, allowing the city to pay the Rileys directly. But it was too late anyway: the Rileys had already been evicted. Even if they had received the payment, it wouldn’t have guaranteed that the Rileys remained in their home, since landlords can still evict tenants who receive direct-to-tenant payments.

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“They are supposed to be here to help you, they’re supposed to make sure you get paid so you’re not out on the streets,” said Riley, who has been homeless with her two children, grandchild, and husband since they were evicted, sleeping on park benches and calling around desperately to find a shelter able to accommodate them. Their former property manager declined to comment.

“We’re just lost,” Riley said. “We don’t know what to do.”

Tenants like the Rileys who have applied for rental assistance in recent months have encountered a system strained under the weight of a high volume of applications from tenants facing imminent eviction, whose landlords are increasingly unwilling to accept the funds, which come with the requirement that landlords cannot file for eviction for 90 days.

The emergency rental assistance program marked an unprecedented federal investment during the pandemic to keep renters housed and landlords paid, an effort that has helped to prevent the flood of evictions that many tenants and advocates feared following a pandemic-related economic slowdown and the end of eviction moratoriums. The city of Baltimore and other jurisdictions stood up programs to distribute the funds from scratch.

“I’ve never quite seen government move this fast,” said Faith Leach, Deputy Mayor of Equity, Health and Human Services, noting the city can get the assistance to people in as little as five days or less.

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Even so, the program has faced a range of administrative challenges since it was first established at the end of 2020.

The latest challenges come amid a new phase of the pandemic eviction crisis that is challenging the established system for processing applications and payments. Baltimore’s eviction court, which had been closed earlier in the pandemic and then reopened with smaller dockets, has resumed processing cases at pre-pandemic pace, rushing through the monthslong backlog of cases.

The Baltimore sheriff’s office carried out an average of 165 evictions per month in the first four months of 2022 before numbers started picking up in May, climbing to 487 evictions in August, according to sheriff’s office spokeswoman Sabrina Tapp-Harper. The office had already served 231 evictions this month as of Sept. 15.

The Mayor’s Office of Children & Family Success, which oversees the city’s rental assistance funds, has long prioritized the applications of people with pending evictions. But the fast pace of eviction cases moving through the courts has put new stress on this system, leaving tenants anxiously waiting on funds that come just days or hours before their scheduled eviction, or in the case of the Rileys, aren’t approved until it’s already too late.

In August, the Office of Children & Family Success processed 743 applications from tenants who had a pending eviction or claimed to have one. In the first six months of the year, the office had processed an average of just 414 of these “emergency cases” a month.

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While the number of applications for assistance has remained fairly steady over the course of the year, the share of those applications involving a pending eviction have shot up.

“The courts have revved up, they’re fully staffed now, and they are not necessarily in the backlog that we were in,” said Angela Whitaker, director of the Baltimore City Community Action Partnership, a program within the office that operates the rental assistance program.

The city has recently contracted an additional 25 application processors, as well as additional staff at the courthouse and call center to meet the new level of need, Whitaker said.

But even with additional staffing, the office faces another challenge: landlords rejecting the funds.

The rental assistance money comes with some strings attached for landlords, including that they have to sign an agreement not to evict the tenant for 90 days after receiving the funds. The Office of Children & Family Success recently has seen a rising number of landlords declining to sign that agreement, Whitaker said, although the office does not track the precise number.

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Adam Skolnik, executive director of the Maryland Multi-Housing Association, said that “[i]f the city is unable to approve applications during an eviction process” then it should “streamline the required application and contract” process.

Starr Byrd — a property manager with Premier Property Management Investment LLC, which works with landlords in Baltimore and the surrounding counties — said that it was only when the courts began processing failure to pay rent cases more quickly that landlords realized the consequences of the rental assistance program’s requirements.

“If they accept this money with tenants that haven’t paid in two or three years, then I have to be committed to them for another six months,” said Byrd, noting that once the grace period has ended, it could take another few months for a landlord to get through the eviction process.

Byrd advises landlords she works with to pursue rental assistance funds in cases where she believes tenants need short-term assistance to get back on their feet.

“But if we have a tenant who we know before the pandemic was already a troubled tenant, and hasn’t tried to make it right, we’re not going to accept it,” Byrd said.

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Darlene Harenberg, a broker with Star Property Management, noticed response times begin increasing earlier this summer, she said, putting a strain on some landlords she works with. “Owners don’t get a break — they have a mortgage to pay, water bills to pay, taxes to pay,” she said, referring to one owner she works with who she said came within a couple weeks of foreclosure while waiting for rental assistance funds to come through this summer.

The increases in market rents — median rents in the city have increased by nearly 20% since the start of the pandemic — have made her and the landlords she works with even more impatient, she said.

“I’m missing the rental market,” Harenberg said. “If I had done this [the eviction] months ago, I would have been able to rent this property for top dollar,” she said, referring to a property that she said her company has been waiting for rental assistance for since earlier in the summer.

Ben Frederick, a real estate broker and property manager in Baltimore, said that landlords have been motivated by the quicker pace of court proceedings to pursue eviction rather than wait for rental assistance funds to come through.

“When evictions were put on hold it was like you had no other choice,” Frederick said. “Now that you have a choice to pursue terminating a tenancy by one form or another, versus participating in this program, a landlord makes a calculation as to what’s going to get them positive results more quickly.”

While the Office of Children & Family Success is able to pay rental assistance funds to tenants directly when a landlord declines to participate, the process is more time-consuming for the already-strained office. According to federal guidance, rental assistance can only be distributed to tenants directly when a landlord has formally rejected the funds.

In August, the office made 38 direct-to-tenant payments, compared with between 11 and 23 in each of the four months prior.

And when landlords fail to officially reject the funds until too late, it can leave tenants like the Rileys vulnerable to eviction.

Nearly two years after the rental assistance program’s launch, the continued and shifting obstacles facing the program highlight the persistent, acute need for assistance.

“Things have not seemingly gotten better for people,” said Baltimore City Council member Kristerfer Burnett, who said that his office receives multiple calls every day from people seeking assistance with rent, childcare, food and other necessities. “Even though the worst of the pandemic is hopefully behind us, the economic impact is still with us.”

Keeping up with rent first became a struggle for Scarlett Rankin when she was laid off from her job at Starbucks in October 2020. When she applied for rental assistance, her property management company told the city that it would not participate in the program. After repeated follow-up calls and emails to the city’s office that handles rental assistance, she received a direct-to-tenant payment within days of her scheduled Sept. 2 eviction date. Rankin’s property management company declined to comment.

Her housing is secure for now, but the challenges that led her to seek assistance haven’t been resolved: without enough money for child care for her daughter, Rankin hasn’t been able to return to work.

“You can’t catch up if you’re coming from behind, you can’t get ahead if you’re playing catch up,” Rankin said.

That continued need has advocates anxiously eyeing the next challenge facing the rental assistance program: the city is expected to run out of funds in early 2023 if it continues distributing them at its current pace.

Surrounding counties have already begun limiting new applications. Baltimore County stopped accepting new applications in July, as funds dried up there. Anne Arundel County stopped accepting new applications — except for applicants facing imminent eviction — on Sept 1. Howard County stopped accepting new applications shortly after that, citing the “current surge of applications.”

Burnett said that he and other council members will push for additional locally-funded assistance after the federal money runs out, which is expected to be discussed at a proposed council hearing. But the hearing date has not been set, and no specific plans for an extended rental assistance program have been proposed.

When Rankin received her rental assistance check last month, she was relieved. But with future assistance so precarious, that feeling didn’t last long.

“You think you can have a moment to breathe,” Rankin said. “But you can only breathe a moment before you have to swim again.”

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