When the COVID-19 pandemic first reared its head earlier this year, authorities largely advised the populace to shelter in place in their homes, creating a state of living we’ve all been forced to grow accustomed to. But how does a person or a family shelter in place when they are evicted from their home?
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics listed Maryland’s July unemployment rate at 7.6%. Some in Maryland received the federal government’s $300 weekly unemployment benefit, but that is expiring, and that was itself a replacement for a previous enhanced federal unemployment benefit of $600, according to The Washington Post. As such, there are growing concerns of a potential housing crisis that would likely exacerbate the ongoing health crisis, forcing local residents from their homes and into potentially crowded shelters where social distancing could be significantly harder to do.
“So right now, I feel like we’re still in this, I don’t know, the eye of the hurricane,” said Chauna Brocht, senior manager of service coordination at Jewish Community Services. “Things are kind of calm right now, but we’re expecting the problems to keep getting pushed further and further out.”
Brocht’s view of the situation stems from what she termed a “patchwork” of moratoriums currently in place, including one issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for people who lost their jobs due to COVID-19. “They decided to use their emergency powers to place a moratorium,” Brocht said, “because they felt that the worst thing would be to have people be homeless or else living in cramped quarters right now with the virus.”
Brocht also mentioned a separate moratorium on evictions due to COVID-19 instituted by Gov. Larry Hogan, which will remain in effect until 60 days after the lifting of the state of emergency.
Those seeking protection under the CDC moratorium can fill out a special form, Brocht explained.
However, Mitchell Posner, the executive director of Community Assistance Network, Inc. and a member of both Suburban Orthodox Congregation Toras Chaim and Pikesville Jewish Congregation, said that the CDC moratorium has “all kinds of strings attached to that, that the tenant has to prove that they’re qualified.”
Posner also stated that, moratorium or no, tenants also have to contend with “some landlords who are taking advantage of people, scaring them or trying to say there’s some other lease violation such as ‘the dog pooped on the carpet so I want you out of here.’”
While the moratoriums provide renters with a degree of protection from the threat of eviction, Jacki Post Ashkin, JCS’ director of community connections, stressed a moratorium only means a renter does not need to pay their rent immediately. Once the moratorium ends, the renter would then be obligated to pay any rent they had missed during the moratorium. “So if someone has not been paying their rent for six months, they can’t be evicted because of the moratorium,” Ashkin said. “But at the end of that period when the moratoriums are gone …”
“…then they could be evicted,” Brocht said, finishing Ashkin’s thought.
Posner’s assessment of the situation largely overlaps that of Brocht. While Posner concurred that, thanks to the moratoriums in place and the financial assistance currently available, the area is currently in “the quiet before the storm,” he categorized the seriousness of the threat of eviction to the local community “on a scale of one to 100: 110.”
“When those [moratoriums and financial assistance] expire,” Posner said, “and people are left to try to pay their current and back rent that they haven’t been able to pay or won’t be able to pay because they’re unemployed or their incomes have been limited as a result of COVID, it’s going to be a huge issue. It’s already a huge issue, but it’s going to be that much bigger.”
Posner stated that CAN’s five outreach offices in Baltimore County will sometimes get 100 calls a day from people with questions about how to pay their rent. With the moratoriums in place, many residents are choosing to spend their resources on other necessities like food, utility bills and the internet connections their children need to attend school online. As a result, Posner estimates that by January there will be people who are between six to 10 months behind on their rent payments. Furthermore, according to a July report from the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, as many as 292,000 Maryland households “are at risk of eviction for fear of being unable to pay rent.”
While CAN does not inquire about a person’s religion when they come to the organization for help, Posner was certain that there had to be people in the Jewish community who are wrestling with these issues, saying that COVID-19 and its societal impact are nonsectarian.
According to Brocht, both the city and the county are currently in the process of releasing funds to people to help prevent evictions, regardless of whether someone had lost their job because of COVID-19, though those funds had not yet been completely distributed. She added that federal and state money was also available to help prevent evictions.
To best make sense of these moratoriums and what they mean for renters, Brocht strongly encouraged those concerned about eviction to first have an honest conversation with their landlord about what they are able to pay. If still necessary, Brocht recommended renters contact a lawyer, to better understand their legal options, and JCS, who can point renters to different resources including financial support. She also recommended calling 211, a hotline that can connect renters with resources for financial assistance.