2021 | Government

County Council delays action on bill extending protections for renters

Stricter amendments could prohibit increases into August 2022

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The Montgomery County Council on Tuesday delayed taking action on a bill to extend protections for renters during the COVID-19 pandemic.

As originally written, the bill, sponsored by Council Member Will Jawando, extends the period in which landlords can’t raise rent above the “voluntary rent guidelines” of 1.4% until August 2022.

The COVID-19 Renters Relief Act, which the council passed in April 2020, prohibits landlords from raising rent above the guidelines during the state of emergency Gov. Larry Hogan declared. Although the state of emergency expired in August 2021, the county’s law remains in effect until Nov. 15, which is 90 days after the state of emergency ended.

The bill would also prohibit landlords from charging late fees until August 2022.

Last month, the council’s Planning, Housing and Economic Development (PHED) Committee held a work session on the bill and approved amendments.

One amendment, proposed by Council Member Hans Riemer, would prohibit landlords from charging certain late fees without giving notice. Another amendment, also proposed by Riemer, requires the landlord to waive certain late fees if the tenant can show economic hardship.

The PHED committee discussed but didn’t vote on a proposed amendment from Council Member Andrew Friedson that prohibits rent increases between Nov. 15 and Aug. 15, 2022, for renters who suffered economic hardship during the pandemic.

Under Friedson’s amendment, the current limit holding rent increases to the voluntary guidelines would expire on Nov. 15.

Friedson’s amendment would require landlords to notify a tenant of any rent increase.

A tenant must attest to certain conditions to receive a waiver from the increase, legislative attorney Christine Wellons said during Tuesday’s meeting. The tenant would affirm the attestation language, declaring that the pandemic caused them financial hardship.

The amendments would apply only to people who have been Montgomery County residents since at least August 2020. It would be limited to those earning a gross household income at or below 50% of the area median income for the last 30 days, or for the 2020 tax year.

Friedson has also proposed requiring landlords who receive an attestation for a waiver of a late fee or rent increase to tell the Department of Housing and Community Affairs (DHCA):

  • The number of notifications provided to tenants who qualify for the rent increase waiver
  • The number of waivers of late fees provided to tenants
  • The number of waivers of rent increases provided to tenants
  • The number of applications for waivers of late fees
  • The number of applications denied for waivers of late fees and rent increases
  • The ZIP code of the property
  • The rental amounts of the tenants who received waivers

A third Friedson amendment spells out education and outreach efforts for the DHCA in communicating the requirements for renters applying for waivers, and calls for posting the information in multiple languages online.

The vote to table on Tuesday was 6-3.

The majority — Friedson, Tom Hucker, Gabe Albornoz, Nancy Navarro, Craig Rice and Sidney Katz — wanted to further explore Friedson’s amendments.

Riemer, Jawando and Evan Glass voted against the motion to table.

Riemer said on Tuesday that he is concerned that only a small share of tenants have applied for rental assistance and are taking advantage of resources available to them. He said tenants who would qualify for the rent increase waiver might not take advantage.

“I fear, in this instance, we basically allow for across-the-board increases that are greater than inflation to take place during this final stage of COVID,” he said. “And we leave it to tenants to exercise their rights through procedures and processes.”

Jawando said the amendments are “adding hoops” to jump through and could diminish the effectiveness of the county’s efforts to assist tenants during the pandemic. It would also depart from the county’s current practice of not raising the rent above the voluntary guidelines.

“You shouldn’t have to opt in to a right and a protection. It should be available to you,” he said.

Jawando added that it’s important that the county not create additional work for the DHCA or landlords.

DHCA Director Aseem Nigam, who joined Tuesday’s virtual meeting, said administering the waivers of rent increases could put a strain on the department.

Nigam added that the economic recovery in the county from the pandemic will take longer than the health recovery. He said he preferred that the county continue its current policy past Nov. 15 of not raising rent above the guidelines.

“So, given the fact that we are still going through a pandemic and given the fact that we have tenants out there who need assistance, we want this process to be as easy as possible,” he said.

Rice said he doesn’t view Friedson’s amendments as a departure from past practice of focusing on helping those in the most dire situation.

“Everybody’s impacted by COVID, but that doesn’t mean everybody then deserves to get all of the money. What we need to do is, as we’ve always done, prioritize those who are in the most need and make sure that they get the help,” he said.

Navarro agreed, saying that the county should take a more surgical approach to help renters.

“I think we have reached a stage in this crisis where we should be thinking about how do we best target our assistance, and how do we recognize that there are certain residents among us that have been harder hit than others,” she said.

Navarro said a blanket, across-the-board approach to not increasing rent “doesn’t stay true to equity.”

Dan Schere can be reached at daniel.schere@bethesdamagazine.com