A group of Maryland lawmakers hope to overhaul the state’s eviction process and provide relief to tenants and homeowners during the 2021 legislative session, including guaranteeing renters the right to counsel during eviction cases.

In a virtual press conference on Monday, the housing rights coalition Renters United Maryland and several state lawmakers announced a Housing Justice Package for the 2021 legislative session. The package of bills includes an overhaul of the state’s eviction process and new emergency restrictions on landlords.

Zafar Shah, an attorney with the Public Justice Center, said Maryland is facing an “unfolding housing crisis” and that, without relief and reform, tenants and homeowners alike could lose their homes.

Recent estimates from the Chicago-based consulting firm Stout show that up to 204,000 Maryland households could currently be at risk for eviction.

Here’s what will be in the newly announced Housing Justice Package during the upcoming session:

Emergency relief for tenants

Advocates have long warned that tenants are being evicted under “tenant-holding-over” actions, which can occur when a tenant remains on a property after a lease ends. Under proposed rental relief legislation, landlords would be barred from not renewing a lease based on “rent delinquency and lease expiration” during the pandemic.

Montgomery County Democrats Sen. William C. Smith Jr. and Del. Jheanelle K. Wilkins plan to tackle lease non-renewals during the pandemic. The legislation would also codify and expand current moratoriums on evictions through 2021, and would prevent landlords from charging late fees or increasing rent during the state of emergency.

Wilkins said the current state and federal moratoriums on evictions aren’t enough by themselves to keep Maryland tenants in their homes.

“What we have in place now is a series of limited protections,” Wilkins said. “These unstable protections lead to insecure housing for renters.”

The bill would also provide financial relief for landlords through a statewide program that would match local rental relief and eviction prevention funding, Wilkins said.

Maryland is set to receive more than $400 million as part of a recently passed federal stimulus package. That roughly $400 million is part of $25 billion in federal rental relief funding nationwide.

Adam Skolnik, the executive director of the Maryland Multihousing Association, pushed back on the proposal to bar landlords from terminating certain leases. He called the legislation “fundamentally silly” and charged that the increased regulation would actually make the state’s lack of affordable housing worse.

“If you put more regulation on a business, and it costs more money to manage a business, by nature they’re going to raise the price,” Skolnik said.

Skolnik said the state should use the entire $400 million in federal funding to help any tenant having trouble with rent.

Emergency relief for homeowners

Homeowners are already allowed forbearance under state and federal orders, but legislators plan to codify and expand upon those orders during the upcoming session.

relief bill from Del. Vaughn Stewart (D-Montgomery) and Sen. Jill P. Carter (D-Baltimore City) will ban mortgage late fees until the end of Maryland’s state of emergency and give homeowners more options to catch up on late payments.

And for homeowners who’ve exhausted their forbearance options, the bill would defer missed mortgage payments to the end of the loan as the default repayment option.

The bill would also protect homeowners’ credit by preventing servicers from “furnishing negative credit information to consumer reporting agencies related to mortgage payments subject to forbearance” for a year after the state of emergency ends.

Stewart’s bill will also give homeowners the ability to sue loan servicers who don’t follow the state or federal orders on forbearance. He noted that, in a report by the law firm Bradley Arant, many servicers were “still implementing” the state’s order on forbearance.

Stewart said giving homeowners the ability to sue will “wake up” servicers and ensure compliance with the emergency relief measures. He hopes the measures will help small landlords and, by proxy, their tenants who haven’t been able to pay rent.

Advocates told Maryland Matters earlier this month that some foreclosures were moving ahead across the state despite the state and federal moratoriums.

Eviction reform

Attorney General Brian E. Frosh (D) will push legislation that would increase Maryland courts’ eviction filing fees, which are currently among the lowest in the country.

Frosh said Maryland’s eviction filing fee is just $15. He wants to raise it to the national average of $120.

Eviction filing fees are $15 in most jurisdictions for failure-to-pay rent actions, but can vary for other types of filings, according to court records. Tenant-holding-over filings, for example, cost $46 in every jurisdiction except Baltimore City, where those filings cost $56.

Frosh warned that the low fee leads some large landlords to file “serial evictions,” and hopes that raising the price to file an eviction will lower the number of new evictions across the state. He said Baltimore has, at times, seen more eviction filings than the total number of rental units in the city.

“Eviction is not simply a condition of poverty,” Frosh said. “It’s a root cause. It perpetuates a cycle that can last for generations.”

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Luke H. Clippinger (D-Baltimore City), whose committee will hear many of the eviction reform bills, is also introducing a bill to increase eviction filing fees.

In addition to the proposed eviction fee increase, the package contains two other bills aimed at reforming Maryland’s eviction process: guaranteeing tenants the right to counsel and overhauling evictions to include a diversion program.

Del. Wanika Fisher (D-Prince George’s) and Sen. Shelly L. Hettleman (D-Baltimore County) will sponsor an effort to give tenants the right to counsel in eviction cases. Fisher noted that tenants are more likely to keep their homes when they head to court, although studies have shown the lion’s share of renters don’t have representation in eviction cases.

Baltimore City recently enacted similar right-to-counsel legislation, making it one of only seven jurisdictions in the country at the time to do so.

Del. Melissa R. Wells (D-Baltimore City) and Sen. Charles E. Sydnor III (D-Baltimore County) plan to introduce an “Eviction Diversion and Defense” bill that would lengthen the eviction process and require landlords to connect tenants with rental assistance before filing an eviction lawsuit.

The bill would also create a “two-phase” proceeding that would allow tenants and landlords to try to avert an eviction before an eviction lawsuit moves forward, and would lengthen the eviction process to allow renters time to prepare for trial.

Judges would also be given broader powers to delay evictions in “emergency situations,” like allowing time for renters to recover from health problems.

Shah noted that the Housing Justice Package likely won’t be the only housing relief for reform effort during the 2021 legislative session. He said housing insecurity, particularly in communities of color, was an issue long before the pandemic.

By Bennett Leckrone