July 2021Campaigns

No home in this world anymore: on Maryland's eviction crisis

Last month, I began to see sporadic, sensationalized headlines in the news and whipping across social media disclosing that about “30 million Americans facing eviction in the next few months as eviction moratoriums expire.” I also began to notice some chatter in some local activist groups I followhinting that evictions were coming. I became really interested in this problem when comrade Susan posted on our MoCo DSA listserv that MoCo Courts were wheeling out a “rocket docket” to handle the FPR (failure to pay rent) cases that were piling up.

When my MoCo DSA comrade Elissa posted in the chat during one of our past meetings that she was organizing observers of the ‘rocket docket’ court proceedings I said “count me in”.

Impressions on the District Court

On Friday, May 28, at 9:15, I met Elissa in front of the Court building on 2nd Avenue in Silver Spring. It was an uplifting experience to meet again in person after a year and two months of Zoom meetings. Elissa mentioned that the attractive and open plaza in front of the Court would be great for a demonstration and I completely agreed. If the velocity of evictions increases, we may want to pitch a protest there about it. Though the “rocket docket” has since moved to the District Court in Rockville, should the proceedings return to Silver Spring I’ll be ready.

When we entered the District Court building we had to go through security: we were photographed, required to show ID and had to put our possessions through a metal detector. While this is an unpleasant and intrusive procedure, I believe it is necessary to keep folks with guns and other weapons from getting into the Court. Don’t let these security procedures keep you from exercising your right to observe the Court in action. These buildings belong to the people.

CASA in the house

When we got to the evictions Courtroom I was happy to see a CASA (Central American Solidarity Association) help sign posted at the entry door so folks would know that advocates from the immigrant and refugee organizing group had their back. An energetic and capable young CASA staff lawyer named Jonathan Riedal was on hand to represent tenants. CASA had also deployed a personable young intern to answer questions and hand out information about tenants rights and the rental assistance payment application process.

I asked Jonathan what percentage of folks who’d recently applied for rental assistance payments had received a check yet and he replied with an emphatic “ZERO PERCENT!” This must be a very stressful situation for folks staring at eviction papers.

The “Rocket Docket” proceedings

In my previous experience with the MoCo Court system, the premises were grubby and Court functionaries barked orders and herded us around like we were unruly cattle. The rocket docket MoCo District Court evictions process was surprisingly sleek, well organized, respectful of all parties to the disputes and efficiently conducted. Still, this process is inherently inhumane and inequitable. Housing should be a human right. Period.

Judge Williams conducted the proceedings with sensitivity and fairness to all parties involved. His job is to move these cases through the Court as the law requires. Though he frequently stated that any relief or mercy that might be on offer was up to “the politicians,” not the legal system (I’m still trying to process that response). Regardless, I was pleasantly surprised to see that in some of the cases where the judge authorized eviction, there still seemed to be some willingness of both landlord and tenant to work things out.

The vast majority of folks currently facing the threat of residential eviction in MoCo and elsewhere are people of color — exactly the same group that suffered the most during COVID-19 from loss of employment and wages. Research from the Economic Policy Institute found that 80% of the folks losing employment during the pandemic were in the bottom 25% of wage earners. Many of these lost jobs were in the “leisure and hospitality” industries — food service, lodging, catering and event service, entertainment venues, gambling, etc. — which were hit hardest at the beginning of the pandemic.

At the nadir of the pandemic in early spring of 2020, almost 12 million jobs were lost. We still have about 3 million workers who have lost their jobs and not found new ones. It will take some months until most of these early and long-unemployed folks find work and wages. Be mindful that because of the very high rents in MoCo, it often takes two, three or even more family members, some working multiple jobs, to make the rent on a single apartment. Sideline a worker or two in a family group, and the housing budget can get stressed beyond the breaking point. The CDC and state eviction moratoriums provided necessary relief while folks tried to get back on their feet — but when those moratoriums end, all of the back rent is due.

What happens to folks who are evicted?

People often find that because of a previous eviction and a bad credit score, landlords will not rent to them. Some of them find week-to-week or month-to-month lodging in places like Extended Stay America (ESA) that do not require a lease but charge almost double what a local apartment would cost.

We observed a couple of ESA cases in our courtroom. The management folks from ESA were clearly lying when they accused one tenant of not turning in a room key. The tenant stated that she left it at the desk with an unnamed employee as required. The so-called key was just an instantly reprogrammable/replaceable plastic card like you get at any hotel. ESA management also accused the tenant of not removing possessions as an excuse for further damages owed. The tenant claimed she left only some trash as any occupant of a hotel room might leave behind. Judge Williams essentially called the ESA staffers liars.

Blackstone Corporation and Starwood Capital recently purchased Extended Stay America for $6 billion. Blackstone has also been aggressively buying up trailer parks in Florida, Arizona and elsewhere. Like Baltimore Slumlord Jared Kushner, Blackstone and other high-caliber investment sharks have discovered that there are big bucks to be made renting to poor working folks. These underpaid workers have a very restricted range of housing options and have few resources to defend their rights as tenants. I recommend reading the New York Times article, “When No Landlord Will Rent To You Where Do You Go?” if you're interested in reading more about this.

Why are there so many eviction cases now?

Many residential leases are for just one year and have ended during this long pandemic. When your lease runs out, game over. You are no longer covered by the federal and local eviction moratoriums, so your landlord can start the eviction process. Many small business commercial leases have also ended during the pandemic, so there are a bunch of eviction cases for that sector of renters as well. (On a personal note, I was surprised to see my commercial landlord show up in court to win an uncontested $47,000+ judgement against the business owner across the parking lot from our Kensington workshop for failure to pay a year’s rent.)

As I wander around MoCo these days, I see hundreds of commercial retail properties for rent. Even more notable are the hundreds of office buildings with “For Lease” signs everywhere. I speculate that many office-based businesses figured out that a Zoom meeting was of better value than a $5,000-a-month office suite on charmless Rockville Pike. Maybe that Bethesda long-term overdevelopment plan the Council forced through over Mark Elrich’s objections a few years back was not such a great idea after all? If they can’t fill up those old office buildings with commercial tenants, maybe the County could condemn them and convert them to affordable housing. Punk rock squatters should lead the charge into those buildings as they continue to do in Europe. Hey! Ho! Let’s Go!

As the Socialist went to press, the CDC-mandated moratorium on evictions was scheduled to end  June 30, and the Maryland moratorium on June 25. There was some pressure on Hogan the Terrible to extend it, but as of press time he had not.

Activists on the ground have been preparing for an expected spike in evictions in July. About 30 million in Maryland’s budget — much of it coming from federal coffers — is committed to offering rent payment support to eligible tenants, but it’s too little and too hard to apply for. CASA, the Brandy Brooks Campaign (shoutout to comrade Max Socol and his text bankers), Renters Alliance and other groups are doing serious work to inform the public about these opportunities, but there’s only so much they can do. DC is extending their moratorium on evictions until October 7. This is the model that Maryland and other jurisdictions should follow.

Folks who want to help can volunteer with CASA or Renter’s Alliance to stay mobilized. And MoCo residents should pay attention to Brandy Brooks’ for County Council Campaign. Brandy is a DSA comrade, renter and a Renters Alliance board member.

How can MoCo renters access support resources?

I tried the MC311 Customer Service Center by calling 311 from my home in East Bethesda. If you are outside of MoCo, you should dial 240-777-0311. I asked the person who answered what help was available to tenants who were failing behind in their rent and were facing possible eviction. She replied, “We usually send people to the website.” Long awkward silence. “And what website might that be?” I asked. “Could you please give me the web address so I can look at it?” The rep rather haltingly spelled it out for me: "montgomerycountymd.gov/hhs-program/snhs/rent-relief.html".

You can fill out an application on this site for the COVID-19 Rent Relief Program for some rental assistance. There is also a list here of Frequently Asked Questions I found helpful.

I then called the Maryland State Department of Housing and Community Development Emergency Rental Assistance Program Call Center at 877-546-5595. The person who answered the phone explained that the program offered relief to both tenants and landlords, but that relief is administered at the local level — County and Baltimore City specifically. I was directed to the following web address: rentrelief.maryland.gov. If you go to this site, you will see a drop-down menu. If you click on the blue highlighted place you call home (e.g., Montgomery) you will see contact information for applying for the COVID-19 Rent Relief Program. Be warned that I was told the typical response time is three weeks! In MoCo you are advised to call 240-777-0311 or email hss@montgomerycountymd.gov.

CASA is always on the front lines defending working folks. You can call them at 301-431-4185. If you are able, consider donating to or volunteering with them.

If you think you have been unfairly treated by your landlord, contact the Montgomery County Office of Landlord-Tenant Affairs by calling 311. You may also get some help by contacting the Montgomery County Office of Consumer Protection at 240-777-3636. Or send Renters Alliance an email at: info@rentersalliance.org

Finally, if your landlord filed an eviction lawsuit against you, you will have to show up in Court, preferably with a lawyer, or risk the loss of your home. You may get legal aid or referral to a lawyer from the following organizations:

  1. Call Legal Aid at 240-314-0373.
  2. Call 311 and ask for Housing Stabilization Assistance.
  3. Call Civil Justice at 410-706-0174 for low-cost legal aid.
  4. Call the Maryland State Bar Association at 800-492-1964.

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