Maryland’s access to counsel program for low-income renters facing eviction has won two years of funding, a victory for advocates who have been anxious to offer stronger legal support to tenants amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The program is set to receive $12 million allocated as part of the coming fiscal year’s budget. Another $14 million is planned for the 2024 fiscal year, an amount that lawmakers set aside from the state’s abandoned property fund.
News of the funding comes a year after legislators first passed a bill offering access to counsel in evictions — but, crucially, that law did not identify a funding source for the program. The law made Maryland the second state in the nation to guarantee legal help to low-income renters, but provided no clear path for the program to get started.
The funding set aside during this year’s legislative session will change that. Maryland Legal Services Corporation, which is administering the program, has begun preparing to launch the service.
“MLSC is busy setting up infrastructure pieces that will be important once this funding makes its way to us so we can hit the ground running,” said Deb Seltzer, MLSC’s executive director.
MLSC will distribute the funding to legal services providers, which will in turn carry out the access to counsel program.
Jumpstarting the program will be a massive undertaking. MLSC hired a program manager, Karen Wabeke, to oversee the process.
“It’s incredibly exciting,” Seltzer said. “Fundamentally, this is what MLSC does: We gather and then distribute money for civil legal aid, and to be able to launch a program like this on such a huge scale really requires investment.”
The program will address a major disparity: Most landlords have some form of representation when they go to court, while 99% of tenants do not, according to a 2020 study of evictions in Baltimore.
MLSC is working to set up a unified intake process so that tenants can be referred to a single resource instead of having to call multiple providers in search of legal help.
“For tenants, this will be a sea change, and we’re just incredibly excited and thankful for all of the partners who worked to make this happen,” Seltzer said.
Vicki Schultz, the chair of the Maryland Access to Counsel in Evictions Task Force and associate dean for administration at the University of Baltimore School of Law, said adding legal help for tenants will require a shift in the culture surrounding rent court.
“Until now, it’s been kind of somewhat lopsided,” Schultz said. “Landlords have had robust representation through their agents or legal representatives, but only a small percentage of tenants have had representation, so this will really level the playing field and allow us to think differently about how we address housing stability in Maryland.”
Attorney General Brian Frosh, who pushed for the access to counsel program, celebrated the funding from the legislature in a news release. He also pointed to other tenant-friendly legislation that passed in the General Assembly this year, including a bill that would allow tenants to shield eviction filings from public access if the proceedings were brought during the pandemic.
Under another bill lawmakers passed this session, courts will also be required to pause eviction proceedings if the tenant is actively seeking rental assistance.
And the judiciary will be required to begin collecting and sharing eviction data so that observers can assess what disparities exist and whether the access to counsel program is helping.
“In other states and other jurisdictions who’ve implemented this, you see not only a fairer but a more efficient system, once it gets up and running, and better outcomes for tenants,” Schultz said. “Maybe not everybody remains in the home they’re living in now, but they have more stability and more ability to raise defenses and to have better outcomes generally.”
Seltzer also emphasized that the program will need continued funding after 2024, when the money allocated this session will run out.
“The work is definitely not done,” Seltzer said.