2021 | Opinion

Opinion: With pandemic eviction moratoriums expiring soon, a rent crisis looms

Wave of debt could crash down on fragile recovery efforts

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The COVID-19 pandemic has wrought unspeakable loss on our community. For too many, the past year has been defined by the loss of friends, family, and basic economic security.

Thankfully, throughout the pandemic, Maryland’s renters have been promised that they won’t have to face a particularly devastating loss: the basic right to shelter. Eviction moratoriums instituted by local and federal leaders have helped thousands of our neighbors remain in their homes and weather this year’s crushing economic downturn with a roof still over their heads.

But with national and local moratoriums set to expire over the coming weeks, an eviction crisis of unprecedented scale looms. Leaders across Montgomery County and Maryland must step up to prevent a disastrous housing emergency that could shatter our community’s recovery at its most fragile beginnings.

Since the very start of the pandemic, policymakers across the country have recognized the grave consequences of a housing crisis layered on top of a public health crisis.

In March 2020, as the reality of COVID-19 set in, elected leaders at every level grew alarmed that the coming economic downturn could force millions out of their homes into the streets or packed shelters — further worsening the pandemic.

To stave off a wave of mass homelessness, Congress tucked a federal eviction moratorium into the CARES Act — barring landlords of “federally related properties” from forcing their tenants into the streets. Shortly after, Gov. Larry Hogan imposed Maryland’s own unprecedented moratorium on evictions for nonpayment of rent — this time, expanding protections to all renters across the state.

But neither the federal nor state eviction moratoriums actually relieved rent obligations for tenants; they only prevented renters from being forcibly removed from their homes.

For tenants crushed by the COVID-19 recession, rent back pay has continued to accumulate under the moratorium. Even as many renters struggled to access unemployment benefits, find new work, and afford other basic necessities, their pending bill for rent swelled.

While these renters may not have been kicked out of their homes, their unpaid rent has steadily mounted — giving renters, who are just now getting back on their feet, no reasonable chance to catch up.

For the thousands of tenants in our community who lost jobs during the pandemic, were unable to pay several months of rent, and were saved from eviction by the moratorium, their overdue rent bill amounts to a time bomb. All that stands between them and being forcibly removed from their homes is the eviction moratorium.

And, of course, Maryland’s eviction moratorium is not infinite. In fact, last month, Hogan announced that evictions in Maryland will resume Aug. 15. Without intervention, that date could mark the beginning of a housing crisis of proportions never before seen in Maryland.

Thankfully, Congress, our state, and our county have all opened up direct payment relief programs to tenants struggling to catch up on their rent payments. The urgent challenge ahead is actually getting that relief into people’s hands before the moratorium expires.

Our local leaders must vastly and aggressively increase their outreach to renters who may have struggled during the pandemic and rapidly connect them with the assistance they’re entitled to. And with so much on the line, the old ways of community outreach — that are more about going through the motions than truly reaching people — will simply not do.

Our county and state must directly meet renters where they are: knocking on doors, working with community institutions, and calling people up. There is a lot to learn from Montgomery County’s extremely successful vaccination campaign, including outreach to churches and grocery stores and tested, effective public service advertisements run in multiple languages.

But, if by Aug. 15, rent relief has not been widely distributed — whether for failure of sufficient outreach or bureaucratic dysfunction — Hogan must redeclare a state of emergency in Maryland and extend the eviction moratorium.

If he refuses, Hogan will be directly responsible for untold misery and devastation in our state. That is no record for any leader to leave behind.

Eventually, we will arrive on the other side of the eviction moratorium. Whether that time is rife with despair and homelessness or stability and relief is entirely in the hands of our local leaders.

The work we must all commit to at that point is permanently rebuilding our state’s social safety net, so as to never again face the possibility of a mass eviction crisis in our community.

Rising Voices is an occasional column by Nate Tinbite, a John F. Kennedy High School graduate; Ananya Tadikonda, a Richard Montgomery High School graduate; and Matt Post, a Sherwood High School graduate. All three are recent student members of the Montgomery County Board of Education.

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