An urgent situation has arisen in the city that Mayor Brandon Scott and the Baltimore City Council must take prompt, aggressive action to address:
A dramatic increase in demand for rental assistance is overwhelming city government, placing many more than usual at risk of eviction.
In the last three months, the city rent court has resumed hearing eviction cases at a pre-pandemic pace, sharply increasing the number of tenants who find themselves on the brink of eviction or, even worse, evicted before rental assistance funds can be disbursed.
The Mayor’s Office of Children and Family Success (MOCFS) and Baltimore City Community Action Partnership (BCCAP) must make drastic changes to match the increase in tenants in need of rental assistance.
The Riley family’s experience illustrates the problem.
Because of work hours lost due to Covid-19, they found themselves behind on rent and could not catch up to avoid eviction.
While they had already used the BCCAP rental assistance program to pay two months of back rent, the Rileys needed more rental assistance and so applied for more of the funds they were eligible for.
The family applied for back rent assistance in May. They were evicted on August 9 after trying hard to get help.
Between May and August, the family and their attorney reached out to BCCAP to inform them of the impending eviction date, that the landlord did not want to participate in the program and that direct to tenant payment was necessary.
But unfortunately, BCCAP did not have capacity to properly update and respond to these communications.
By the time BCCAP was ready to initiate direct-to-tenant payments, the Rileys were evicted.
Experiences like these – widely reported by tenant members, advocates, and organizers – clearly demonstrate that MOCFS and BCCAP are woefully under-resourced to meet the increase in urgent rental assistance applications.
The median rent in Baltimore has shot up approximately 19% just in the past year, resulting in many tenants who cannot afford the current rental market and so cannot relocate from their current residences.
Rising rent, in addition to the pre-pandemic number of eviction cases being heard in court and the rise of landlords not willing to participate in the rental assistance program, has created a logjam of rental assistance applications.
The most pressing issue: tenants needing to be paid directly to redeem their properties before eviction.
For the past two years, MOCFS and BCCAP have assisted thousands of renters in remaining in their current homes as they financially recover from lost incomes due to Covid-19.
However, without immediate intervention to make sure MOCFS and BCCAP have the required resources to process the increase in urgent applications of people facing imminent eviction, Baltimore is looking at a wave of evictions.
Increased evictions will deeply damage the city’s most vulnerable residents.
A disproportionately high percentage of Baltimore renters are Black and have lower incomes.
Without immediate action, these residents – who have been hit hardest by the pandemic and who are just now starting to recover – will have their economic recovery squashed by the lack of capacity at BCCAP.
Mayor Scott and the City Council can take swift, decisive action by:
• Allocating more funds to hire and train BCCAP employees to process rental assistance applications.
• Drafting clear and explicit policy and processes for administering rental assistance applications.
• Communicating to tenants about their application status on a consistent basis.
• Reviving bimonthly partner meetings in which BCCAP presented data on their work and would jointly resolve problems with the partners.
• Expanding the number of past-due months that BCCAP will pay to 18 months of rent and placing this guideline clearly on its website.
• Creating more access points for disabled tenants and non-English speaking tenants to get updates on their rental assistance application.
Please take heed, City Hall. These measures aren’t complicated. They require only leadership and resources.
Inaction means Baltimore families struggling to get back on their feet post-pandemic will find themselves suffering from preventable evictions.
• This commentary is by Detrese Dowridge on behalf of Baltimore Renters United, a coalition of nonprofit groups, legal services organizations, tenants’ associations and community-based organizations working towards a Baltimore in which renters live in safe, secure and affordable housing.