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Opportunity for change: Maryland evictions task force calls for rent court reforms

Building a robust access to counsel program for Marylanders facing eviction will take money — perhaps around $30 million per year — and a commitment to reshaping rent court proceedings, a new report argues.

The report issued Wednesday is the first from the Maryland Access to Counsel in Evictions Task Force, which began meeting in October under a new legislative mandate.

The group was tasked with assessing how to build and implement an access to counsel program by 2025 that helps eligible low-income Marylanders navigate the eviction process. The General Assembly passed an access to counsel program last session, in part as a response to Maryland’s astronomical number of eviction filings, but did not provide funding.

Finding money is a central recommendation of the task force’s first report. Maryland Legal Services Corporation, which is tasked with administering the program, projects that fully implementing access to counsel for eligible Marylanders will cost about $30 million per year.

“Funding is the most urgent and critical need,” the task force wrote. “Without it, this program cannot be implemented and nothing will change for the many low-income Marylanders who face eviction.”

The report recommends an “annual, ongoing appropriation for the (access to counsel) fund in the operating budget” to ensure the program is stable over the long-term.

A spokesperson for Gov. Larry Hogan did not immediately respond to an email requesting comment on the recommendation. Lawmakers are also looking for ways to fund the program, including possibly raising the filing fee in eviction cases.

Attorney General Brian Frosh has championed the legislation, which would block landlords from passing the increased costs onto renters. The task force did not actively recommend raising the filing fee, in part because landlord representatives “expressed strong opposition.”

Vicki Schultz, the task force chair and associate dean for administration at the University of Baltimore School of Law, said finding funding is necessary to make the program a reality.

“I’m hopeful that there will be a state appropriation if not this year, going forward, to provide the kind of stability and certainty that this program will require,” she said.

Building a program will require other infrastructure, including a pipeline of lawyers who can handle housing issues.

Maryland Legal Services Corporation Executive Director Deb Seltzer. (Submitted Photo)

Deb Seltzer, MLSC’s executive director, said the novelty of working on evictions in Maryland, which was the second state in the nation to create a statewide access to counsel program, could lure lawyers to the field.

“I think that could be attractive to folks who are looking to do something to give back in their communities,” she said. “To new law grads, who will require more training. I think we will have to approach this from many different angles.”

The report also recommends creating a more streamlined intake system so that it is easier to track outcomes and point tenants to centralized help. Tenants seeking legal help now might have to call multiple agencies and navigate different eligibility requirements in order to get a lawyer.

Another focus of the report is changing rent court, which moves quickly in part because of the sheer number of eviction filings in Maryland. Courts should inform tenants of their right to access counsel, the report suggests, and should be liberal in granting continuances so that tenants can speak with a lawyer.

“We found that one of the key elements is really a culture shift,” Schultz said. “Shifting culture from an approach of scarcity for legal representation for tenants, because that has been the mode, to one of really assessing legal merit and providing counsel where legal merit exists.”

The report calls for moving eviction filings online, a shift that has been challenging because of the volume of cases. Bradley Tanner, public information officer for the Maryland Judiciary, said in an email that electronic filing for landlord-tenant cases is expected to be piloted in Baltimore County this year.

Seltzer said changes to rent court will be challenging if eviction filings return to pre-pandemic numbers. Though eviction filings have picked up with the expiration of state and federal moratoriums, they have not reached the same level as before the pandemic, according to the report.

The lower number of filings offers an opportunity to make change, she said.

“How can we build on the lower number of filings to try to make sure that it is really an opportunity for everyone who needs to have their day in court to have that opportunity?” Seltzer said.