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Maryland lawyers anticipate eviction surge but uncertainties remain

Sluggish pace of court proceedings, rental aid programs may avert some proceedings

Moratoriums to block evictions during the pandemic, actions taken at the urging of tenant advocates, are drawing near an end. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

Moratoriums to block evictions during the pandemic, actions taken at the urging of tenant advocates, are drawing near an end. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

Attorneys who represent tenants across Maryland are bracing for a surge of evictions in the coming weeks, saying it’s unclear whether rental assistance programs or the lingering slowdown in the state’s courts will  stave off many of those proceedings.

In the next six weeks, Maryland tenants will likely lose two defenses that they have used in court to evade eviction during the coronavirus pandemic. An eviction moratorium from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is set to expire at the end of July, and on the state level, an order from Gov. Larry Hogan will end Aug. 15.

“It’s very, very concerning,” said Kayla Williams, a staff attorney for Community Legal Services of Prince George’s County (CLSPGC).

Even as these protections end, lawyers have found themselves feeling uncertain about what will happen in the coming weeks. It’s unclear how many eviction cases will be processed and to what extent emergency rental assistance can help those facing eviction.

Much of the uncertainty depends on when the court system will return to pre-pandemic operations and docket sizes, particularly in larger jurisdictions such as Baltimore city, lawyers say.

Bradley Tanner, the public information officer for the Maryland Judiciary, wrote in a July 1 email that there had been no decision as to when the court system will return to full dockets.

Rent courts in Baltimore city are hearing hundreds of fewer cases each day than before the pandemic, said Carisa Hatfield, a staff attorney at the Homeless Persons Representation Project in Baltimore. That will change once the docket sizes increase.

“It’s just an extension of the world opening back up so to say, that there will be an increased number of court cases that are going to be heard,” Hatfield said.

But it is unclear when that will happen.

Melissa Chiasera, a staff attorney with the Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland’s Courtroom Advocacy Project in Baltimore, suspects that the courts will not return to full dockets until at least the fall.

She conceded it is speculation — a point her colleague, Katherine Davis, also emphasized.

“All this could really change tomorrow, and we wouldn’t necessarily see it coming,” said Davis, the director of PBRC’s Courtroom Advocacy Project. “We’re trying to predict it just like everybody else.”

Some smaller jurisdictions have already begun returning to pre-pandemic docket sizes.

Meredith Lathbury Girard is the managing attorney of Mid-Shore Pro Bono (MSPB), a legal representation group for low-income people in the Eastern Shore. The group has seen the courts in the area operating “at relatively normal capacities since March,” Girard said.

The volume of cases is “a little bit less than what we had expected,” Girard said, which she attributed in part to emergency rental assistance from local governments.

The rental assistance is federal funding that local governments have distributed during the pandemic. Chiasera, the attorney from PBRC, said she’s hopeful the rental assistance will be able to keep tenants from being evicted, even after the moratoriums end.

But the demand for rent support is high.

“The problem is they’ve had so many people in need of this that they’re really behind in processing,” Chiasera said. “That’s where it becomes troublesome for folks.”

The way that courts handle rental assistance once the moratoriums end is another uncertainty.

Zafar Shah, an attorney in the Public Justice Center’s Human Right to Housing Project said that “despite the very valiant and innovative efforts” to provide the emergency rental assistance, there is not a system in place across Maryland that aligns the distribution of the funding with the evictions process.

Jessica Quincosa, the executive director of CLSPGC, said some of the eviction hearings move faster than the distribution of the funds, meaning people who are eligible for the assistance could still face eviction.

“The big unknown is whether the court will prove itself to be part of this all of government process,” Shah said.

Shah wants to see tenants who have rental assistance “in the pipeline” get continuances or dismissals in their eviction cases. He cited the Eastern Shore as a “blueprint for success” of incorporating the “all-of-government” model — with a caveat being that the area has smaller dockets.

Girard from MSPB said the group has developed a strong partnership with local governments in the Eastern Shore. Tenants who have rental assistance in the pipeline but not on hand should be able to delay their eviction, even after the moratoriums end, Girard said — something Shah wants to be widespread.

“The court, as a part of government, has an obligation to ensure optimization of these emergency rental assistance funds,” Shah said.

Shah is also hoping for the implementation of an “eviction diversion” program in Maryland if the court system is preparing to return to normal operations.

The U.S. Justice Department released a letter June 24, advising states to “consider eviction diversion strategies that can help families avoid the disruption and damage that evictions cause and point to federal resources that can help courts navigate this crisis.”

Tanner, the Maryland Judiciary PIO, wrote in an email that the “District Court has taken several actions that, while not formally named an eviction diversion program, incorporate elements of eviction diversion.” The measures include efforts to educate landlords and tenants about rental assistance opportunities.

Still, the uncertainty and expiration of the moratoriums have made tenants feel uneasy about the coming weeks.

“People are becoming a little bit more frantic,” said Williams of CLSPGC. “Of course they’re more afraid.”