Gov. Wes Moore’s proposed $63.1 billion spending plan includes no money for rental assistance, as evictions rise across Maryland and hundreds of millions in federal pandemic rental aid is about to run out.
To help people keep their homes, the Democratic governor wants to accelerate the state’s timeline to boost the minimum wage to $15, and he earmarked money in his budget to provide legal help for those facing eviction. But without additional funding for rent assistance, Maryland could be facing an acute eviction crisis in the coming months, state agency and nonprofit leaders warned in a hearing at the State House this week.
The state’s $750 million allotment of federal emergency rental assistance, which helped prevent thousands of evictions across Maryland during the pandemic, is set to be fully spent by March or April, Danielle Meister, director of the Office of Community Services Programs at the state Department of Housing and Community Development, told lawmakers Tuesday.
“Within the next few months, everyone will have shut down their [rental assistance] application portals,” Meister said, noting that the majority of counties have already stopped accepting applications, and that others are granting funds only to those facing imminent eviction.
With rents prices spiking beyond reach for many and COVID-related economic challenges lingering, housing advocacy groups and local officials have repeatedly called on state leaders to stem the tide of evictions by using state funding to extend eviction diversion programs. But when Moore published his budget proposal on Friday, advocates were disappointed to find no funding for the program.
Moore’s spokesman, Carter Elliott, did not respond to a question about why emergency rental assistance funding was not included in the budget, but shareda statement that Moore “wants to protect Marylanders from losing the roof over their heads” by increasing the state’s minimum wage to $15 and including $14 million in the budget for access to legal counsel for those facing eviction.
“The Governor is eager to work with stakeholders and federal partners to monitor this ever-changing landscape and address the concerns of renters throughout Maryland,” Elliott wrote.
For much of the pandemic, Maryland eviction numbers remained far below 2019 rates. Early on, eviction moratoriums and court closures suppressed those numbers. Rental assistance has been the only backstop for many struggling households for much of the last three years, with 100,000 households assisted statewide through November 2022.
Still, 2022 saw a rapid uptick in evictions statewide — especially in the summer, according to an analysis by The Baltimore Banner. More than 4,100 people were evicted last summer. That’s twice as many as the same period in 2021, and triple the summer of 2020. Evictions did remain about 30% below the summer of 2019.
“What we’ve seen since March and April is a quick uptick in those numbers,” said Meister. “We are very quickly seeing eviction numbers approach pre-pandemic levels.”
There were 1,447 evictions statewide in September, the most recent data available, said Meister, just a few hundred shy of the monthly average in 2019 of 1,748. “Those might have risen above pre-pandemic 2019 levels by now,” Meister said.
Without additional funding, there’s little to prevent the mounting tide of evictions from continuing to climb.
Statewide, 79% of federal rental assistance funds had been spent as of Dec. 31, according to Meister. Baltimore City had expended 85% by the end of November. Other counties have spent their funds entirely. Local governments rushed to distribute the funding to meet both high demand from tenants and landlords, and to satisfy tight spending deadlines.
“We have a major crisis that will happen in the next few months,” Dominic Butchko, associate policy director for the Maryland Association of Counties, told legislators. “If we don’t do something soon to help people who are on rental assistance right now it will be big, and it is coming.”
According to 211 call data collected by the United Way of Central Maryland, the second half of 2022 brought in the highest volume of calls about rental assistance of any two consecutive quarters during the pandemic. “We’re in the middle of a rental assistance demand peak,” said Scott Gottbreht, president of housing for the United Way of Central Maryland, at the hearing.
Whether to add money for rent assistance still could be part of budget debate. Maryland has a multi-billion dollar budget surplus this year. And lawmakers now have the ability to add items to the governor’s spending plan, after voters amended the constitution in 2020.
In December, 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 outgoing Gov. Larry Hogan to allocate $175 million in state funds for rental assistance.
Outside the State House on Tuesday, tenants and organizers with the group CASA, a regional advocacy organization focused on immigration, submitted that request to Moore.
“While it may not be a ton of money, it has really, really helped us out, especially when it comes to basic necessities that we were already struggling to pay,” Luz Castro, a Montgomery County resident, said through a translator. “It has helped towards rent, it has helped towards bills and has helped towards just common goods such as putting food on the table and clothing for my family.”
Meanwhile, in Baltimore Tuesday afternoon, council members were coming to their own realization of the depleted funds at a hearing called to discuss the status of the emergency rental assistance program. As of Dec. 31, over 12,000 households had been assisted with over $75 million, which is being dispersed rate of $650,000 a week.
“We’re supposed to get another tranche of money, is that correct?” asked Councilwoman Odette Ramos.
“No,” said Debra Brooks, director of the Mayor’s Office of Children and Family Success, which has been responsible for distributing the city’s rental assistance funds. She said the funding would be almost entirely spent by mid-March. There remain 16,000 applications currently under review, a number which includes duplicate applications.
“This is bad, this is super-bad,” Ramos said. “It’s not just a little bad.”
Brooks said that her office has lobbied the state for additional funds, as well as inquired with federal government partners. “What we are actually doing, because we know the need is continuing, that we are looking at ways to continue this program,” Brooks said. “To be able to continue to provide the supports that are needed for our families.”
Baltimore Banner reporters Adam Willis and Ryan Little contributed reporting.