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The Covid-19 Pandemic

Neighborhoodsby Louis Krauss12:59 pmMay 7, 20200

Landlords and advocates debate ban on rent increases and late fees during pandemic

One witness says a Covid-19 emergency relief bill would hurt “mom-and-pop” landlords. Another praises the measure, but warns it won’t stop a looming “tsunami” of evictions

Above: The economic slowdown caused by the coronavirus pandemic has left many unable to pay their rent.

After landlords said it went too far and advocates for poor renters called it a good “first step,” legislation to prohibit rent increases and late fees in Baltimore during the coronavirus pandemic moved ahead in the City Council.

Following a hearing yesterday, the Land Use and Transportation Committee voted unanimously to advance Bill 20-0526, the Baltimore Covid-19 Renter Relief Act.

The bill bans rent increases or fees during the health emergency declared by Gov. Larry Hogan on March 5 and within 90 days after it expires. It applies to rents and fees for existing tenants but does not apply to new tenants.

City Council President Brandon Scott, who introduced the measure, said his goal is to ensure that renters don’t have to pay additional costs at a time when thousands of Baltimore residents have lost their jobs due to the virus outbreak.

“When you don’t know where your next check will come from, you shouldn’t have to stress about your landlord raising rent during the biggest economic emergency of our lifetime,” he said during the virtual committee meeting.

Landlords Object

With 440,000 jobless claims filed in Maryland since March 21, calls have for rent relief have been increasing.

The pleas have ranged from the “Cancel Rent” message tagged onto Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young’s campaign billboard in Station North to a letter by 50 Maryland lawmakers calling on Gov. Larry Hogan to cancel rent and mortgage payments during the pandemic.

“We’re a majority of mom and pop shops that still have to pay our bills”  – Matt Garono, landlord.

Scott’s proposal to prohibit rent increases is a more modest move, but one that still drew some criticism at yesterday’s hearing.

Fells Point landlord Matt Garono said the measure would put small landlords in a financial hole due to the ever-rising fees, real estate taxes and other costs they incur.

“I haven’t really heard any consideration for the landlords in any of these discussions about this bill,” Garono said. “We’re constituents, too, and we’re not all big multi-family operators. We’re a majority of mom and pop shops that still have to pay our bills.”

Garono suggested amending the bill or taking a completely different approach by giving landlords a break on real estate taxes.

Renters Being Victimized

Matt Hill, an attorney with the Public Justice Center, praised the bill, saying it would go a long way towards protecting those who can’t pay rent during this pandemic.

“Problems with rent increases are coming up again and again with our clients, and we want to make sure we aren’t throwing fuel on the fire of this eviction crisis that is likely pending,” Hill said.

Gov. Hogan has already ordered some renter protections. They include a ban on evictions for three months after the end of Covid-19 state of emergency, if renters can show that the pandemic put them out of work.

Despite that order, landlords can still issue notices to vacate after a tenant’s lease expires, Hill said.

There has been an increased number of cases where landlords give tenants 60-day notices to vacate after the tenants tell the landlord they have lost their jobs and can’t pay rent.

“Once the eviction moratorium is lifted, there’s no restriction on evicting people. This is a huge loophole that landlords know about and is why they’re giving 60-day notices to terminate their lease regardless of the reason,” Hill said.

Hill said he hopes the Council returns to this issue at a later date to stop landlords from exploiting the “notice-to-vacate”  loophole.

More Protection Needed

Some advocates said the issue of capping rent increases needs to be addressed on the state and federal level.

“Right now, the prohibitions on rent increases are being decided jurisdiction by jurisdiction, like in Montgomery County where there’s a 2.6% cap on raising rent right now,” said Carol Ott, tenant advocacy director at the Fair Housing Action Center of Maryland.

(Ott said she had wanted to testify during the hearing but had difficulties logging in.)

Others, praising Scott’s bill, said further efforts are needed to put rent assistance and eviction prevention programs in place.

“We know there is a tsunami-sized wave of evictions coming”  – Karen Wabeke, Homeless Persons Representation Project.

“We support this bill, and we think it’s a necessary first step, however, we know there is a tsunami-sized wave of evictions coming,” Wabeke said.

“When some of the protections in place end, and when the courts reopen, I would echo what Mr. Hill said about recommendations for the city to get a robust rental assistance and eviction prevention program up and running as soon as possible.”

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