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Baltimore considers curbing rent increases during emergencies

Baltimore City Council President Brandon Scott. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

Baltimore City Council President Brandon Scott. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

Baltimore City Council President Brandon Scott has proposed restricting landlords from raising rents during and after a declared state of emergency.

The move to block rent increases is the latest gambit amid a larger debate in Maryland over addressing concerns that workers, who lost jobs because of the pandemic, may also lose their homes. Scott submitted the proposal, called the Baltimore City COVID-19 Renter Relief Act, this week. The proposal is slated for a committee hearing next week.

“When you don’t know where your next check is coming from, you shouldn’t have to stress about whether your landlord is raising rent during the biggest health and economic emergency of our lifetime. I’ll continue to do everything in my power to support all Baltimoreans during this uncertain time and look forward to a speedy hearing,” Scott said.

The legislation bans landlords from raising rents after Maryland’s governor declares a state of emergency. It bars property owners from raising rents for 90 days after a crisis is deemed over. Scott’s bill also bans property owners from charging fees for late or missed rent.

All 14 of the city’s council members signed on as a co-sponsors. The council’s Land Use Committee has scheduled a virtual meeting to review the legislation on May 6.

The bill comes after the COVID-19 pandemic prompted Gov. Larry Hogan and governors across the country to declare emergencies, order residents to stay home, and shutter businesses deemed unessential.

So far, according to the most recent figures from the Maryland’s Health Department, nearly 21,000 residents have been infected and 985 have died from the disease. There have been more than 2,000 cases of the disease confirmed in Baltimore.

Hogan recently said he’s hopeful that life can begin to return to normal in Maryland in early May. But many businesses, particularly in the hospitality sector, have been hard hit by the restrictions.

Many establishments resorted to laying off employees because they were shut down. In the last few weeks more than 340,000 Maryland residents filed first-time unemployment claims.

Liberal activist groups and unions have already asked the Maryland General Assembly to consider suspending rent transactions for 90 days in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak.

Those groups, including CASA, 32BJ SEIU, and Progressive Maryland, also asked state lawmakers to require banks and rental property owners to offer interest-free payment plans lasting up to three years for tenants and homeowners to pay down debt.

“If the State’s most vulnerable residents face economic ruin stemming from a public health crisis beyond their control, it will bring dramatic long-term negative effects on the State,” activists wrote in the letter. “Drastic intervention is necessary immediately to prevent this from happening.”

A group of organizations representing property owners — Maryland Realtors, Maryland Multi-Housing Association Inc., and Apartment and Office Building Association of Metropolitan Washington — criticized those proposals.

“Any proposal that prevents rental housing providers from collecting rent for a prolonged length of time … would interrupt the rental housing system and potentially harm the renters that the proposals seek to assist,” according to a letter those organizations mailed to state leaders, including Hogan.

Ben Jealous placed nearly a half dozen calls to a lobbyist convicted of mail fraud asking for help on his campaign — an action that contradicts the ethics reform proposal the Maryland Democratic gubernatorial nominee is releasing later today.

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