Calling the current surge of Covid-19 cases in Baltimore a public health emergency, advocates for tenants called on Mayor Brandon Scott, Sheriff John Anderson and Administrative Judge Hallee Weinstein to suspend evictions in the city.
“There are 352 evictions scheduled by the sheriff for this week. There will be hundreds scheduled for the weeks to come,” Public Justice Center attorney Matt Hill said today, at a virtual news conference held by Baltimore Renters United (BRU).
The lawyers who represent renters, Hill said, know all too well how evictions multiply the impact of the pandemic on vulnerable people.
“If tenants are evicted, they are forced to live in close quarters, in shelters, doubled up with family or friends or on the streets,” he continued. “You cannot quarantine and shelter at home if you have no home.”
In making his plea, Hill pointed to the soaring hospitalization rate and the positivity, which stands at 34% in Baltimore right now, which he called “one of the highest rates in the state.”
In the early days of the pandemic, Sheriff Anderson and then-Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young, along with a district judge, moved to halt evictions.
“You cannot quarantine and shelter at home if you have no home” – Attorney Matt Hill.
The advocates called for the same emergency measure now, as a the Omicron variant of the virus sends the country into its third big surge.
“This pandemic doesn’t seem to be going anywhere soon,” said Detrese Dowridge, a member of the BRU steering committee. “This virus is not waiting.”
According to Dowridge, more than 111,000 Maryland renters are behind on their rent, the majority of whom are Black and low-income.
Scott and Anderson have not yet responded to Brew requests for comment.
UPDATE: A spokesman for Scott said the mayor is “deeply concerned” about the impact that continued evictions will have om residents. “However this is a matter of state law that the city does not have the authority to address. With Covid-19 cases rising in Baltimore, I encourage the governor to sincerely consider eviction relief or delegate power to local governments to make the best decisions for our residents.”
Sickness and Lost Work
Renters and their advocates spoke about how contracting the virus had hurt people’s ability to work and placed them in danger of losing their homes.
A renter named Keisha, who said she lives with her two children and her sister, got behind on her rent when she and her sister were infected.
“My sister had to be hospitalized for over a week and suffered lasting heart trouble because of Covid,” Keisha said, causing her to eventually lose her job.
Keisha took time off work to be home help her children get through virtual learning, causing her earnings to plummet, bills to go unpaid and her credit score to drop.
“Excuse me,” she said, seemingly overcome for a moment. “Just talking abut the situation gets to me a little bit.”
“A good note is, we did get to a point of us working full-time again and trying to play catch-up,” Keisha continued, “but then comes this eviction notice.”
“I’m scared of what will happen to my family if we get evicted and have to go into a shelter. Or have to live with others, especially with the Covid numbers on the rise again,” she said.
Rent Paid, Eviction Anyway
Public Justice Center lawyer Albert Turner told the story of a client of his who is scheduled to be evicted on Thursday.
Joanne Williams, who became too sick with Covid to continue her work at a nursing home, fell behind on her rent.
“It left her with chronic vertigo. She stopped working in the fall of 2020,” Turner said.
Williams’ landlord threatened to evict her and, to get around the CDC eviction moratorium, brought a “tenant holding-over” action against her.
Through the city Rental Assistance Program, the landlord received the $12,000 that Williams owed for unpaid rent.
But she is still in danger of being put out.
The agreement, he said, “clearly stated” that the landlord had to dismiss all current evictions, including the “holding-over” judgment.
But the landlord did not do this, Turner said. “He instead got a warrant in December and scheduled an eviction for her.”
A pending motion filed by the Public Justice Center would halt the eviction.
But in the meantime,”her landlord has taken advantage of her and the city’s rental program, and put money in his own pocket in order to put Ms. Williams out in the street,” Turner said.