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Montgomery County to invest $2M in tenant assistance

Housing advocates say that providing tenants with a right to legal counsel would ultimately pay off by reducing the social costs that come from eviction. (The Daily Record/File Photo)

Montgomery County is among the Maryland jurisdictions offering programs to help tenants affected by the pandemic-driven economic slowdown avoid eviction. (The Daily Record/File Photo)

Montgomery County has launched a $2 million dollar initiative to assist renters facing eviction due to the economic downturn precipitated by COVID-19.

Earlier this month, the county began accepting applications for the Short Term COVID-19 Rental Assistance Program which will distribute up to $500 in rental assistance per month for up to the three months to eligible candidates.

The program comes more than two months after Gov. Larry Hogan passed an executive order barring foreclosures and evictions for those affected by the pandemic.

Other jurisdictions, including Baltimore city, have launched similar initiatives to assist renters affected by the economic downturn. In Montgomery County, eligible candidates must prove a difficulty to pay rent due to a loss of income or increase in expenses resulting from the pandemic.

Robust government programs in the county have effectively addressed the need for rental assistance in the county, said Diego Uriburu, executive director at Identity, Inc., an organization that aims to create opportunities for Latino youth and their families. The organization currently receives funding from several donors and government funds.

Uriburu is meeting regularly with foundations and officials to coordinate aid efforts, an arrangement potentially unique to Montgomery County, he said.

As the county opens up and economic recovery begins, his main concern is assisting at-risk residents, including those whose family members have gotten sick or died from the virus.

“I believe the most vulnerable amongst us will be the last ones to really recover,” Uriburu said. “They might need support more long term.”

Some groups have their doubts about the county’s ability to resolve a growing eviction problem further exacerbated by the economic fallout, and question the efficacy of the short-term rental assistance initiative altogether.

“It’s helpful to people who are able to access it,” said Matt Losak, executive director of the Montgomery County Renters Alliance. “It is incidental to the numbers of people.”

Officials speculate the program will assist roughly 1,100 households countywide. But nearly 400,000 people rent their homes in Montgomery County, and an increasing number, based on unemployment figures, may face eviction, he added.

Losak has reached out to the Maryland district court multiple times for monthly eviction data from the last three years. He said the data can help gauge the magnitude of the increase in need caused by the pandemic and its economic fallout.

“We can’t get an anatomy of the problem based on the numbers until they provide it,” Losak said. “And, so far they’ve been unable or unwilling to provide that information.

Unemployment insurance claims in Montgomery County for April and May totaled over 80,000. Some  workers receiving benefits are making a fraction of the income they made when employed.

While rental delinquency data isn’t readily available, early reports indicate a “substantial increase in late payments,” said Frank Demarais, deputy director of affordable housing at the Montgomery County Department of Housing and Community Affairs.

Eviction hearings are postponed momentarily, but lawyers and officials are preparing for a flood of new cases once Hogan dismantles the moratorium. Some groups, including Losak’s, are vying for an extension.

Those at risk of eviction include minority groups and employees in the retail and service industries, sectors heavily battered by the economic fallout. Undocumented immigrants and some gig workers who might not qualify for unemployment benefits also fall into this category.

Earlier this year, the county also passed a COVID-19 Renter Relief Act, which temporarily prevented landlords from increasing rent more than 2.6% for those with leases up for renewal. The county offers a broader range of existing and COVID-19-related assistance programs than other jurisdictions, Demarais said.

But rental affordability is an ongoing issue in the county, which boasts one of the highest median average incomes in the state and nation.

Although roughly 6.9% of the population lives below the poverty line — significantly below the 9% statewide figure — pockets of need still exist in Montgomery, officials noted.

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