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Baltimore County plans eviction prevention initiative

Baltimore County is launching a $1 million effort to prevent evictions caused by the economic fallout of the COVID-19 outbreak.

Residents who lost income due to the coronavirus pandemic and meet the criteria for assistance, such as income limits, will be eligible for assistance through the federally funded program. The average award to residents is expected to cover about two months back rent, County Executive Johnny Olszewki’s administration said Tuesday.

“We are here to support families that are struggling financially as a result of this pandemic. This initiative will help families avoid homelessness and provide a bridge while they get back on their feet,” Olszewski said in a statement. “This is just a first step, but an important one – and Baltimore County will continue to look for ways to provide resources that help our families weather this storm.”

Baltimore County’s program will take effect once Gov. Larry Hogan ends the state’s eviction moratorium enacted in response to the disease’s outbreak, according to the county.

The county is also partnering with Maryland Consumer Rights Coalition’s Fair Housing Action Center to provide tenants struggling to pay rent other forms of assistance. Those services include offering financial coaching, providing referrals for support service and legal assistance, and helping clients apply for the renters’ tax credit.

Since early March, when the first cases of COVID-19 were reported in Maryland, nearly 700,000 state residents have filed first-time unemployment claims.

As the state continues to loosen restrictions put in place to prevent the disease from spreading, some local governments fear a potential deluge of evictions once Hogan rescinds the eviction moratorium.

That fear is particularly pronounced in Maryland’s lower-income jurisdictions.

Baltimore City, where homeownership is 19% lower than the county and annual household median income is about $25,000 a year less than its neighbor, launched a $13 million eviction prevention program last month.

Eligible city tenants must be at or below 80% of the area median income, which is roughly $72,000 a year for a family of four. The money can only be used to pay back rent for April, May and June.

Various liberal groups have called for stronger measures, including for the General Assembly to convene a special session to enact laws deferring rent collection. Groups representing property owners’ interests have argued that granting those requests would create “chaos.”

Activists have also advocated for guaranteeing residents facing eviction the right to counsel, portraying it as a cost-saving measure in the long run. Providing counsel to tenants in eviction cases would save the city and state millions of dollars, according to a report released in May and prepared on behalf of the Public Justice Center.

The initial cost of providing right to counsel in Baltimore alone would be $5.7 million, according to the report. About $4.5 million of that expense stems from personnel costs to legal aid providers, with an additional $1.2 million for service delivery and program infrastructure.

But those initial outlays, according to the report, are offset by $35.6 million in savings to Maryland and Baltimore, including $12.5 million in Medicaid spending, $10.6 million in shelter and transitional housing costs and $7.7 million in foster care expenses, the report contends.

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