2021 | Government

Majority of county delegation backs bill limiting eviction powers

Six delegates opposed because burden of proof is on landlord

share this

Montgomery County landlords might have to provide just cause for evicting a tenant from a residential property if a state bill limiting eviction powers passes this year.

The Montgomery County Stable Homes Act would prohibit an eviction of a tenant holding over beyond the expiration of a lease in the absence of just cause. Landlords would be required to prove certain facts regarding the just cause of eviction.

Montgomery County’s 24 state delegates discussed the bill and others during a meeting Thursday morning for votes on whether to pursue, amend or withdraw them.

This year’s Maryland General Assembly session starts next week.

The delegation voted 17-6 to pursue the tenants’ rights bill. The delegates who voted against the bill were: Kumar Barve, Kathleen Dumais, David Fraser-Hidalgo, Jim Gilchrist, Lily Qi and Kirill Reznik.

Del. Ariana Kelly was absent for the vote ..

The bill was sponsored by Del. Jheanelle Wilkins, who said evictions are a crisis because some people lose their home for no clear reason.

“COVID-19 has illuminated the reason for this bill,” she said during the meeting.

Wilkins said a senior citizen who spoke during a bill hearing said he was living in a motel room after his landlord evicted him, with no reason provided.

“That is happening during the pandemic and happened [pre-pandemic],” she said. “We have to make sure that that senior citizen and every resident in our community has the opportunity to have the reason provided and that we have a strong standard when we put people out of their homes. That is the reason for this bill.”

However, Barve said the state lawmakers should consider that the bill would mean a permanent change to the law, not just a reaction to COVID-19. He called the proposed legislation an “extreme measure.”

Lawmakers have considered the bill three times before, he said, but there is no eviction or holding-over crisis in the county.

“I can’t understand why we would take such an unusual step as this bill to address a crisis that doesn’t really exist,” he said.

Landlords would have to spend a lot of money going to court to attempt to “be granted the privilege of not renewing a contract that has run its course” — money better spent on maintenance and operations in an apartment building, Barve said.

“A contract is a contract and one party should not be able to compel future compliance of another party,” he said.

Dumais said there’s a long case history of supporting contracts.

“That’s why you sign them,” she said.

The Housing Justice Package of bills includes legislation that looks at retaliatory eviction and providing counsel to tenants — legislation Dumais said she would support as a better solution.

Qi also said there could be a better solution, such as a third-party “referee.”

“My issue with the bill is not the spirit of the bill,” she said. “My issue is the specific tactic used to address the issue, which is who decides who is the wrong party in this dispute. … It is really putting the burden of proof on the landlord.”

Qi said some landlords might rely on one or two properties as a main income stream.

“You’re saying they cannot let go of a bad tenant and they have to go to court to provide — not just to provide a reason — but they have to share the burden of proof. I just think that’s unfair and will have a lot of unintended consequences to our housing market,” she said.

Del. Emily Shetty clarified that the bill states that just cause is not required if a landlord owns not more than two single-family rental properties.

The delegate voted 19-5 in favor of an amendment to remove late payment of rent at least four times in a 12-month period when rent is more than seven days late as a condition that would constitute just cause for eviction. The same delegates who opposed the overall bill also opposed the amendment, except for Gilchrist.

Reznik said he would have supported the bill without the amendment, which he felt would make the situation worse for the tenants the bill was trying to help.

Under current Maryland law, a landlord can evict a tenant based on breach of lease, wrongful detainer, failure to pay rent, and a tenant holding over.

Del. Gabe Acevero, who said he was a tenant, said County Executive Marc Elrich, the County Council and community members strongly supported the bill based on stakeholder meetings and discussions.

“I am speaking from the perspective of a tenant, as a renter, as someone that recognizes the need for protections like this,” he said. “But also the confidence in the kind of public meetings and input that took place before this bill was put together. It wasn’t put together willy-nilly.”

As a landlord, Del. Eric Luedtke said he strongly supported the bill.

“This is not like another economic exchange. This is not me selling a used car,” he said. “This is a person’s home. Under the law right now, I have the ability as a landlord to take their home away from them without giving a reason and that’s not OK.”

Only one other bill received any opposition within the delegation. It would require the governing body of certain cooperative housing corporations to have a reserve study on the “common elements” of the corporations.

It also would require the annual budget of the corporation to include certain information if a reserve study indicates a need to budget for reserves and require the body to provide reserve funds in the annual budget.

Del. Pam Queen voted against the bill. The other 23 members of the delegation were in favor.

Other bills that the delegation passed unanimously included legislation to:
● Authorize the county to expand public campaign financing to the offices of the clerk of circuit court, register of wills, sheriff and state’s attorney
● Require WSSC to stream live video of the open meetings of its commission and maintain a complete and unedited archived video recording of each meeting on its website. It also would alter the amount of the late payment charge for unpaid water and sewer bills from a mandatory charge of 5% to a charge of up to 5% (bicounty bill with Prince George’s County)
● Require the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (MNCPPC) to develop and implement an “innovative recreation youth program” to integrate nontraditional recreational opportunities (bicounty bill with Prince George’s County)
● Allow the county to decrease the maximum speed limit to not less than 15 mph on highways in an urban district without conducting an engineering and traffic study. It would also enable the county to decrease the maximum speed limit to not less than 15 mph on highways outside an urban district after conducting an engineering and traffic study
● Allow the county to transfer its speed camera program from the police department to the transportation department. It would require a transportation employee, instead of a police officer, to sign the required statement of a speed camera violation citation
● Repeal certain seating capacity requirements for a community performing arts facility license for alcohol beverages
● Authorize the county’s Board of License Commissioners to issue a refillable container permit for draft beer or a nonrefillable container permit for draft beer to a holder of a Class H beer and wine license in Damascus
● Authorize county officials to automatically enroll residents and businesses into a seven-year Community Choice Energy program in which the county would purchase or generate electricity. Residents and businesses would need to opt out of the program.
● Limit the circumstances under which the county’s Housing Opportunities Commission or a committee of the commission may meet in a closed session and prohibit discussion or action on certain matters while in closed session
● Require a contract for the sale of a single-family residential real property to contain a notice saying that there is no guarantee that children living there would attend a specific school
● Establish a mandatory referral review process for the MNCPPC to ensure a complete submission before the 60-day “must act” period (bicounty bill with Prince George’s County)

Briana Adhikusuma can be reached at briana.adhikusuma@bethesdamagazine.com.