For those who think a rent moratorium is keeping people from being evicted in Baltimore as temperatures drop and Covid-19 cases soar, Zafar Shah is here to say it isn’t so.
An attorney with the Public Justice Center, Shah says hundreds of Baltimore renters are being evicted each month, and advocacy groups like his are scrambling to keep up with the demand for aid and legal representation.
“In text messages, I have a quote from a case now, where a landlord told my client, ‘Pay up now or you are no longer a tenant,’” Shah said.
“They literally are banging on the door, telling them, ‘Give me the keys!’” he continued. “People are being evicted, not through a judicial process, but through threats and uncertainty.”
• A “MARCH FOR HOUSING” will start this morning at 10:30 at the Shot Tower, Fayette and President streets, and end at City Hall.
Too often, Shah said, intimidation tactics are the first method that landlords use to deal with someone who may be unable to pay rent rather than litigating the matter in court.
Why are people unable to pay rent? With jobless claims on the rise amid the pandemic, there are plenty of tales of woe.
Karen Wabeke, senior attorney with the Homeless Persons Representation Project, hears them all.
“It’s things like, ‘My hours were cut,’ ‘I lost my job altogether,’ ‘I’m still waiting for unemployment,’” she said. “You’re hearing lots of those stories.”
Over the course of the pandemic, courts have been ordered by federal and local leaders to suspend various actions that are part of the eviction process.
But as assessments of the Covid-19 threat have shifted the rules have changed, legal advocates say, creating confusion among Baltimore renters and landlords about what restrictions are still in place.
On Monday, for instance, the courts moved back from Phase 5 of reopening – when all eviction cases, including failure to pay rent, could be heard – to Phase 3, which only allows for some cases, such as breach of lease and rent escrow, to go forward.
Some renters are unclear about whether the courts are even open, allowing them to come in for an eviction hearing, said Katie Davis, director of the Pro Bono Resource Center’s Courtroom Advocacy Project.
“Judges have also been figuring this out as they go,” added Shah. “It’s largely been this confusion among renters and landlords about what restrictions are in place.”
The upshot for renters has been rough:
Since August, more than 400 people have been evicted in Baltimore, Shah said. That number includes 214 people evicted in September alone, according to Wabeke.
The sheriff’s office reports that more than 537 families in Baltimore were evicted from August through November alone, not including families illegally evicted by their landlords, according to Baltimore Renters United.
Pre-pandemic, many more were being evicted. In 2019, there were 6,519 evictions in the city, said Zafar Shah, an attorney with the Public Justice Center, citing data from the Baltimore Eviction Study.
“Of course, the problem isn’t a comparative one,” Shah told The Brew. “We’re talking about 112 evictions per month during a pandemic when everyone assumed there were policies in place to prevent that.”
During a pandemic, any evictions are a concern because there are so few safe options.
“What we’re finding is they’re very limited in what they can do after being evicted and put on the street,” attorney Carissa Hatfield, of the Homeless Persons Representation Project, said.
“They can go to family or friends, which can increase the spread. And if they can’t stay with family they’ll stay in a congregate facility, which the CDC has advised against as being unsafe.”
Evictions Despite Order
Federal efforts, which are about to expire, have brought some relief.
In September, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued the “Temporary Halt in Residential Evictions to Prevent the Further Spread of COVID-19” Order.
The order temporarily halted residential evictions for nonpayment of rent through December 31 to curb the spread of Covid-19.
But advocates say it has been difficult for renters to produce all the documentation needed to prove to a judge that they should not be evicted.
In one case, Shah said, his client encountered a sheriff’s deputy on the way to an eviction hearing.
“They were with the sheriff going back to court, and I was there trying to litigate this issue within an hour of them about to be evicted,” Shah said. It ended up not changing the outcome – “the client was evicted anyway.”
“People are being evicted, not through a judicial process, but through threats and uncertainty” – Zafa Shah, Public justice Center.
Davis had a similar story.
“One of our attorneys just got off the phone with a tenant who filled out his CDC order that prohibits an eviction, and when the sheriff came to evict, what should have happened is the sheriff and tenant should have gone into court,” she said.
“But the sheriff was under the impression that the eviction should be served anyways, so now [the client] only has until Monday to get all of his stuff out.”
Swamped With Clients
Wabeke said her organization and others in town has been overwhelmed with new clients needing help to fight their eviction cases.
She believes that sheriff’s offices should be prevented from carrying out evictions until Covid-19 is better contained.
“With the court still being in Phase 3 and still hearing some types of eviction cases, that’s really concerning for us and our clients, that we’re still in this pandemic,” Wabeke said.
“Our numbers are worse than ever and there’s still people being evicted,” she said.
Last Monday, the City Council advanced a bill to guarantee legal representation to renters facing eviction. But its fate is unclear amid opposition by Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young and with only two weeks left in the legislative term.
March for Housing
To protest the surging evictions – and also the city’s plan to eventually move homeless people from hotels back into congregate shelters – Housing Our Neighbors and other groups have organized a “March for Housing” this morning.
It starts at 10:30 a.m. at the Shot Tower and ends at City Hall.
Koumba Yasin, a 50-year-old homeless woman living in one of the hotels operated by the city for homeless residents, was one of the organizers.
She said she would rather die than go back to city shelters.
“Going back to any shelter right now is like a death sentence. People leave in the morning and then come back in the same room. You don’t know who they’ve been around,” Yasin said.
According to a press release from Housing Our Neighbors, the march organizers are demanding:
• a halt to the city’s plan to return people to congregate shelters by the end of December.
• permanent housing for all, so the homeless are returned to housing, not shelter, after the pandemic.
• a winter shelter plan that gets rid of temperature cut-offs and provides an equitable amount of beds to women, youth, and LGBTQIA+ residents.
• renter’s rights, including a cancellation of the rent, passage of the Right to Counsel and Just Cause Eviction bills, and transparency in how eviction prevention dollars are being spent.