2021 | Politics

Democratic gubernatorial candidates agree on eviction relief, tenant representation

Candidates took part in forum hosted by Montgomery County Renters Alliance

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Democratic gubernatorial candidates from left: Peter Franchot, Doug Gansler, Ashwani Jain, John King Jr., Wes Moore, Tom Perez.

Screenshot from Montgomery Community Media presentation of forum

Six men running in Maryland’s Democratic gubernatorial primary agreed on Tuesday on the need for eviction relief and for tenants to be represented in court.

The forum in Silver Spring was hosted by the Montgomery County Renters Alliance and featured six of the nine Democrats running in the June 2022 primary:

  • Comptroller Peter Franchot
  • Wes Moore, a former nonprofit executive, Rhodes Scholar and Army veteran
  • Former Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler, who was Montgomery County State’s Attorney
  • Ashwani Jain, a former employee in the Department of Housing and Urban Development under President Barack Obama and unsuccessful Montgomery County Council candidate in 2018
  • John King Jr., a former secretary of education under Obama and current education nonprofit leader
  • Former U.S. Secretary of Labor Tom Perez, who served one term as a Montgomery County Council member.

Former Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker, who announced on Saturday that his wife, Christa Beverly, died, did not participate in Tuesday’s forum. Democratic candidates Jon Baron and Mike Rosenbaum also did not attend.

Throughout Tuesday’s forum, candidates referred to the state’s eviction crisis during the COVID-19 pandemic and in the aftermath of the sunset on the state’s eviction moratorium last month.

Franchot called on current Gov. Larry Hogan to reinstate the moratorium. “Right now, we need to act. It is a moral imperative,” Franchot said.

Franchot said he planned to meet with both tenants’ rights advocates and landlords to discuss state issues.

“These hundreds of thousands of low-wage earners are going to be ground under this system … so we’ve got to do something,” he said.

Perez agreed that Hogan needs to do more to help tenants, starting with extending the moratorium.

“I would make sure that there was right to counsel [for renters]. I would also make sure that we put in place measures that result in eviction diversion,” he said.

Moore said more than 96% of landlords have legal representation in landlord-tenant cases, compared to about 1% of evicted tenants.

“This is about fairness. This is about equity,” he said.

When the candidates were asked about their past experiences as renters, Perez, who is Dominican-American, spoke about housing discrimination he faced.

“When I was in school, I was looking to rent an apartment in the Boston area, and I called the landlord, and the landlord asked his serious questions such as, where are you from? … I didn’t get the apartment,” he said.

Evictions affect everyone, Perez said, but “disproportionately touch communities of color.”

He said one solution the Justice Department used for combatting housing discrimination was “match paired testing,” an auditing method in which two “testers” screen for potential differential treatment of renters of different races, abilities or other backgrounds. Such a method could work in Maryland, he suggested.

King said the next governor should follow through on a proposal by Attorney General Brian Frosh to raise the eviction filing fee from the current level of $15. Frosh has proposed raising it to the national average of $120, Maryland Matters reported last year.

“And using those funds to fund the right to counsel, you would also have had the benefit of discouraging landlords, particularly landlords for large properties using eviction as a strategy, basically filing for eviction almost immediately after rent is missed,” he said.

The candidates universally agreed that tenants need legal representation in landlord-tenant cases.

Gansler said the state should look at solutions such as having a tenant’s eviction not show up permanently on their record.

“[Maybe] you got a speeding ticket and you pay the bill, but you don’t get the points, and that’s the kind of thing we need to really look at, because COVID is a crisis situation [for renters],” he said.

There was some disagreement Tuesday night on whether the solution to the affordable housing crisis is to build more housing.

Jain said that in the short term, more moderately priced dwelling units (MPDUs) need to be built. He also said there needs to be more mixed-use developments near centers of transit.

“[We need to be] making sure we’re not just looking at single-family homes, but multi-family homes and higher density,” he said.

King and Perez agreed that more affordable housing needs to be built. Perez praised Montgomery County’s MPDU program as “literally one of the best in the nation.”

“At the same time, I would want to talk to county commissioners in every single county to understand the impact of that because I would absolutely want to replicate it if it is possible, but I want to make sure I understand what’s going on in those counties,” Perez said.

Gansler, however, said he is concerned that creating a housing supply that is too large could exacerbate urban sprawl.

“I don’t think the answer is to build more houses. There’s plenty of houses out there. We need to have more affordable houses,” he said.

Montgomery Community Media produced and aired the forum, which can be seen on YouTube.

Kelly Schulz and Robin Ficker are seeking the Republican nomination in the gubernatorial race.

The primary is June 28, 2022, and candidates have until Feb. 22 to file.

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