Standing with a portable oxygen tank slung across one shoulder, Sylvia Duvall stood in the pavilion at The People’s Park and recounted the tale of how she nearly lost her home in West Baltimore this year.

Unable to work due to a disability, Duvall lives on a fixed income and relies on support from her partner, Abdul Muhammad, to make the monthly rent. Then in June, Muhammad’s car fell victim to the rash of auto thefts plaguing Baltimore City drivers. He lost his job, and the eviction notices began to pile up.

Duvall joined the small group of tenants, advocates and housing attorneys Wednesday in Annapolis to deliver a message to state lawmakers and the governor as they prepare to enter next year’s legislative session: Emergency rental assistance works, and Marylanders need more of it.

In Duvall’s case, she connected with an attorney who negotiated with their landlord to hold off on the eviction while the United Way of Central Maryland reviews their application for rental assistance. Since then, Muhammad recovered the stolen car and found a new job.

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Still, Duvall said, the setback hurt. “It’s just been hard getting put back up,” she said. “And it would really help if we could get some help with our back rent.”

Staged by the Renters United Coalition, Wednesday’s action came as the group released the results of a study conducted by Stout Risius Ross Inc., an investment banking and advisory firm, with funding from the Abell Foundation, the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the United Way. The report found that Maryland could see cost savings if lawmakers provided money upfront to prevent the displacement of those most at risk. It recommended spending $28 million to $52 million a year on eviction prevention funding for as many as 12,000 to 18,000 tenant households.

Both the Abell Foundation and the Annie E. Casey Foundation fund The Baltimore Banner’s work.

But the coalition has a slightly different request for Maryland lawmakers: $15 million in the next fiscal year budget for about 5,620 households with the highest risk of homelessness.

In addition to the budget allocation, the coalition is advocating for eviction prevention programs in all Maryland community schools, which provide social services in schools with high concentrations of poverty. None of them currently have money set aside for students facing eviction, according to coalition members.

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With a $40 million investment, the group said, the state could eventually save more than $2 for every $1 spent on eviction prevention, or about $92 million annually.

Representatives from the state housing department and the governor’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The group’s lobbying effort coincides with the state experiencing a steady rise in eviction filings that almost matches 2019 levels, according to Maryland Judiciary data. Not every filing leads to an eviction, and not every eviction leads to homelessness, but the Stout study found that 15% to 25% of families indicated that they would experience housing insecurity if they were evicted. In October 2023 alone, more than 2,000 Maryland families were evicted, state data shows.

The picture is likely just as grim on the national level. A 2023 report from the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University found that about half of all renters in the U.S. are “rent burdened,” or spending more than 30% of their incomes on rent and utilities. It also found a housing shortfall of at least 1.5 million units.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development last week released its Point-in-Time Count Report, used to provide a rough estimation of homelessness in the U.S. The annual snapshot found more than 650,000 people were experiencing homelessness on a single night in January 2023 — a 12% increase from 2022. It continued a trend of rising homelessness nationally from 2016 to 2020, which paused in 2021 and 2022 due to federal American Rescue Plan funding.

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Maryland received more than $755 million in emergency rental assistance funds from the federal government during the pandemic, according to data from the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development, and advocates were disappointed that the state declined to commit any more for the 2024 fiscal year budget. Despite facing some criticism for its slow rollout and uneven distribution throughout the state, it assisted more than 100,000 families in Maryland during an uncertain economic period that included job loss, inflation and rent hikes, the data shows.

NaShona Kess, vice president of the NAACP’s Baltimore City Chapter, noted Wednesday that of the households that received emergency rental assistance during the coronavirus pandemic, 73% of the recipients were Black and 71% were female-led. Aid, Kess said, keeps renters from having their credit scores and background checks tarnished, allows children to stay in their schools and enables parents to continue working.

Kess, an attorney, also argued that rental assistance could help Maryland save money on foster care costs, which is diverted every year toward housing children at hotels and motels and, sometimes, commercial office buildings.

“This is a very important topic to our communities, to our families,” Kess said.

Rental assistance can also keep people out of Maryland emergency rooms, which already have the longest wait times in the country, said Tammy Montague, a clinical social worker at Health Care for the Homeless in Baltimore.

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At Wednesday’s event, Montague spoke about two clients whose health deteriorated drastically after eviction, with one dying and another no longer able to live independently.

“Unfortunately, it’s just devastating to people,” she said.

Maryland Gov. Wes Moore’s administration is preparing to unveil a suite of priorities for the 2024 session related to housing supply, production and tenant protections. Attorney C. Matthew Hill from the Public Justice Center said Wednesday that the package does not include a commitment to rental assistance at this time and urged the Moore administration to reconsider.

“It’s not too late!” Hill said. “Maryland cannot be a leader in reducing childhood poverty, righting the wrongs of the past and ensuring shelter for all without an investment in eviction prevention funds.”

Hallie Miller is a reporter at The Baltimore Banner, where she hopes to dive deep into the city's communities and highlight solutions. She is passionate about engaging readers and using new tools to tell stories. Hallie spent four years at The Baltimore Sun, where she helped lead the organization's medical coverage of the coronavirus pandemic. 

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