Tawanna Turner received an eviction notice just days after the Sept. 25 end of the statewide moratorium on all evictions. While she had been making a payment on time every month, the Frederick resident couldn’t afford to pay the rent in full because she was in between jobs this summer.
Meanwhile, the back rent was piling up.
Her landlord was understanding, she said, even giving her resources that could help her to pay her rent and avoid eviction. This led her to Legal Aid and the Religious Coalition of Maryland, which helped get her rent caught up.
Turner said the process was straightforward, and the attorneys helped her through every step of the process, including applying for rental assistance.
Legal Aid has always helped clients facing evictions, but the coronavirus pandemic has complicated their job. The statewide moratorium on evictions was originally supposed to end July 25 but was pushed back and ended Sept. 25.
However, Gov. Larry Hogan’s emergency order regarding evictions is still in place for tenants who have been affected by COVID, as long as they can prove it with documentation.
Legal Aid has been working with the Religious Coalition for Emergency Human Needs since this summer to help clients facing eviction, said lead attorney Nina Shore.
In July, the Religious Coalition, a Frederick-based nonprofit, received $3 million of Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding specifically designated for rental assistance. Since then, only about half has been used by applicants.
Nick Brown, director of the Religious Coalition, wants tenants to know that they have the option to get help with their rent. Even if they think they may not qualify as being “affected by COVID,” he encourages them to apply to the program.
County Executive Jan Gardner announced some changes on Thursday to the rental assistance program. The program formerly limited applicants to three months of relief. Now, that cap has been lifted, Gardner said. She said people can now apply for relief for past months when they were unemployed, even if they have gone back to work.
“Just because somebody is now back to work, they won’t be penalized,” Gardner said.
Income verification on the application does not have to be notarized, she said.
If the tenant does not qualify for the COVID-19 rental assistance, they will be moved to the coalition’s eviction prevention program, which has been around since long before the pandemic began.
“If you are behind, don’t pay attention to the executive order,” Brown said. “Still apply right now and let us help you pay that down.”
Because landlords could not evict their tenants until September, many of them were not collecting rent since the spring, or were not receiving their full rent payment. While some landlords may have canceled the rent entirely, most simply deferred it, meaning tenants have to pay all the rent they owe at the end of the year. Brown encourages tenants to try to get their rent made up now rather than waiting.
“So what we’re trying to avoid is the scenario in which when the year is closing down, when that moratorium is getting close to expiring, then suddenly everybody’s going to come and try to apply when that money is starting to expire,” Brown said.
The White House’s moratorium on evictions ends Dec. 31.
This is troubling to Shore. Gov. Hogan’s emergency order will not end until the state of emergency is lifted, but it’s unclear when that will be.
“So I don’t know how that’s going to carry out,” Shore said. “And we’re certainly hoping that people won’t be able to evict [tenants] in January, but we’ll have to see what happens.”
What tenants need to know
The first thing tenants should do when they are unable to pay their rent is contact the Religious Coalition, Shore said. There’s more than enough money for rental assistance, and getting the money to the landlord before an eviction notice is posted is the fastest and easiest way to avoid eviction.
One of the requirements that a tenant must meet in order to be covered by the White House executive order or Gov. Hogan’s emergency order is proof that they’ve already sought out rental assistance.
“So if those residents have evictions pending, and they don’t apply for rental assistance, that becomes an enforceable eviction,” Brown said. “That’s kind of a very quick boil down of that executive order. Because there’s a number of things that a resident has to do in order to be able to become eligible for the purpose of that executive order.”
Once the tenant is able to get rental assistance, they can pay back all their outstanding rent and be secure in their lease. Where the problem comes in, however, is when tenants don’t apply for the rental assistance until after an eviction notice is posted.
“Sadly, there have been folks that have been evicted, folks that were not able to find us before they were. And sadly, some of these folks have already been set out,” Brown said. “The numbers aren’t huge, but the enforcement is currently possible.”
If tenants wish to be protected from eviction even after applying for rental assistance, they must file a CDC Declaration to their landlord. The document is available online or can be provided by Maryland Legal Aid.
“Each adult listed on the lease needs to complete the declaration,” Shore said. “While their landlord can start the eviction process, the tenant cannot be evicted for failure to pay rent until the moratorium is over.”
If tenants are sued for failure to pay rent, Shore recommends they find an attorney to represent them in court. Maryland Legal Aid provides free legal help for those who are income eligible. Those who do not meet the income criteria can contact the Maryland Court Self Help Center in Frederick.
“We assist tenants at all stages in the process, even after a warrant of restitution has been authorized by the court,” Shore said.
Landlords might also try to take tenants to court for other reasons besides failure to pay rent to try to get around the executive order. These include a “tenant holding over” action, which is usually used in cases where tenants refuse to leave after their lease.
“So if the landlord files any action against a tenant, we urge them to contact us,” Shore said.
Turner also recommends tenants keep documentation of everything, especially payments to their landlords, and to keep back-up files electronically. Otherwise, she encourages anybody who is behind on their rent to reach out to an organization as soon as possible.
“There is a lot of help out here… and they will do what they can to help you,” she said.