2021 | Government

County leaders urge residents facing eviction to show up in court

Montgomery has distributed more than $32M in rental assistance

share this

Cesar Silva, a landlord who oversees more than 600 apartment units in Rockville and Silver Spring, addresses reporters during a news briefing on Thursday, Aug. 12.

Photo by Steve Bohnel

This story was updated at 5:45 p.m. Sept. 21, 2021, to correct the name of the federal rental assistance program. 

At the start of the coronavirus pandemic last year, Cesar Silva saw the impact firsthand.

Silva is a landlord who helps manage apartment complexes in Rockville and Silver Spring. He said that of more than 600 units he helps oversee, almost 75% of the tenants were behind on rent near the start of the pandemic. 

Most were paid hourly, and when businesses shut down, they lost their income, he said.

They weren’t only facing that challenge. Many also didn’t have internet, so applying for rental assistance has also been tricky.

But thanks to the county’s assistance, and Silva heading door-to-door with a laptop and his phone as a hotspot, he has helped many tenants get assistance.

“I’m very grateful that we have a system that actually works,” Silva said.

County leaders provided an update on their rental assistance funds Thursday. So far, the county has distributed more than $32 million in rental assistance to more than 5,800 households since last year. 

In total, the rental relief funds come from state, local and federal tranches. The current breakdown of money distributed and yet to be distributed is: 

  • $3 million already distributed in local funds, announced soon after the pandemic began in 2020
  • $20 million in federal funding from the CARES Act, which was announced soon after Congress passed that bill in late March. All of these funds have been distributed.
  • $3 million available in assistance through community development block grants. Some of these funds have been distributed.
  • $31 million available in the first round of the federal Emergency Rental Assistance Program. This is the current tranche the county is drawing from.
  • $28 million available in state funds for rental assistance. The county is also currently drawing from this.
  • $33 million to be available in the second round of the Emergency Rental Assistance Program, still to come

At Thursday’s news briefing, County Executive Marc Elrich and Amanda Harris, chief of Services to End and Prevent Homelessness within the Department of Health and Human Services, continued their call to residents to attend court proceedings if they have been served an eviction notice.

Elrich said the county sheriff’s office is providing a list of residents who have been served those notices. That allows the county to target assistance to those who most need it, he said.

Recently, President Joe Biden’s administration imposed a 60-day extension of an eviction moratorium. Harris said the moratorium applies as long as Montgomery County remains in the “substantial transmission” phase of the coronavirus cases, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

That equates to at least 75 new cases per day, or 525 new cases over a seven-day period, according to the CDC. If the county sees 14 straight days of less than that, the moratorium is lifted, Harris said.

The moratorium is an “affirmative defense” for those facing eviction, Harris said. But she urged them to show up to court, where Maryland Legal Aid will provide assistance. 

Elrich said in an interview that he thinks many undocumented immigrants facing eviction are scared to attend court hearings, and others mistakenly think the moratorium automatically applies. Harris agreed, adding that the overall process can be intimidating.

Most evictions are actually informal and never head through court proceedings, Harris said. Those at risk simply need to know they have a chance in court, she added.

“People don’t understand their rights,” Harris said in an interview. “And when you get a very threatening letter from your landlord, saying that you have to be out by this date, a lot of people don’t understand that they can’t actually do that, that it has to go to court. And they just move out.”

At Thursday’s briefing, Harris told reporters she believes that a little more than 300 residents are currently on the sheriff’s list of evictions.

She understands that there are still challenges in getting people to show up to court. But her department has done a lot of marketing, with advertisements on buses and targeted outreach at high-turnover apartment complexes to reach people in need. 

Rental assistance funds can be used to pay up to 12 months in back rent or up to three months of future rent.

To apply, residents must prove they have been financially affected due to the coronavirus, owe at least $1,000 to their landlord, and have lived in Montgomery County since at least August of last year.

They can apply at www.montgomerycountymd.gov/HHS-Program/SNHS/rent-relief.html or by calling 240-777-0311.

Silva said he helped one family of four and another family of five pay off about a year-and-a-half of rent.

Many of the people he serves, given their hourly wage, would be unable to pay off that debt for years, he said. 

“I learned it’s amazing that we have a system that … can help tenants. … It’s a great program,” he said. 

Steve Bohnel can be reached at steve.bohnel@bethesdamagazine.com