Wilkins To Reintroduce Just Cause Bill for Landlords This Session

Wilkins To Reintroduce Just Cause Bill for Landlords This Session

More than 10,000 eviction notices were issued in county in 2017

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Jheanelle Wilkins

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State Del. Jheanelle Wilkins will try for the second time to get legislation passed during the upcoming 2019 state legislative session that would institute just cause eviction laws in Montgomery County.

The bill that Wilkins, who represents Silver Spring and Takoma Park, is sponsoring would require landlords to state a specific reason, or “just cause” for evicting a tenant, and give the tenant 60 days’ notice prior to executing an eviction.

Among the “just cause” reasons landlords may evict a tenant include property damage, violation of lease terms, disorderly conduct, illegal activity, repossession of the unit, making repairs to the unit or taking the building off of the market, according to the bill.

“What my bill is doing is saying when that notice is provided, there needs to be a reason, and that reason needs to be a just cause,” Wilkins said in an interview Wednesday. While tenants can currently challenge an eviction in court, there is no law requiring that a landlord give a reason for an eviction.

Wilkins introduced a similar bill during the 2018 General Assembly session, but it received an unfavorable report in committee and was ultimately withdrawn. One of the issues, she said, was a provision that would have defined eviction as any time a landlord refused to offer a tenant a lease renewal with “substantially similar terms” when it came to the rent that was being charged.

“That was to prevent what could be a backdoor way for a landlord to evict someone,” Wilkins said.

In August, Wilkins conducted a study with tenants, landlords and community groups in an attempt to rework the language of the bill. Ultimately, she decided to strike the rent increase prohibition.

“They [landlords] took that language of ‘substantially similar’ and took that as impeding their ability to raise rent. There’s no provision in this bill that has anything to do with rent or rent control,” Wilkins said.

In an op-ed posted on the Montgomery County Republican Party website, attorney Harvey S. Jacobs wrote that the 2018 just cause bill was an “ill-advised usurpation of private property rights.” Jacobs, who unsuccessfully ran for a District 15 seat in the House of Delegates this year, wrote that landlords incur costs when they are forced to go to court to regain their property, and the costs are either a burden to the landlord or result in higher rent for future tenants. Eventually, he argued, rents would become unaffordable with just cause legislation.

“The economic laws of supply and demand take over. If there are fewer landlords willing to do business in a jurisdiction with a Just Cause Eviction statute on the books, rents will rise since there are fewer rental units available for the same pool of renters,” he wrote.

According to an evictions report released last month by Montgomery County’s Office of Legislative Oversight, there were 836 evictions in the county during fiscal 2017, which was down from 1,033 evictions seven years before. But there were still 10,451 eviction notices issued. Wilkins said the number of evictions doesn’t tell the whole story because most tenants leave their units voluntarily once served with an eviction notice.

“We have to keep in mind that a number of people are voluntarily displaced. A lot of them just leave instead of waiting to be evicted. I thought it was appalling that that many people in the county have had that ordered against them. I found it to be another reason that we need just cause,” she said.

According to the evictions report, the areas in the county with the highest eviction rates from fiscal 2014 through 2017 were Silver Spring and Wheaton-Glenmont, with an average of more than 3,800 eviction notices issued per year, or 96 per 1,000 units. In those areas, nine percent of the population lives below the federal poverty line.

Only a handful of states and localities have just cause laws, including Washington, D.C. Wilkins said her working group examined the District’s laws as a case study. She said there is a national conversation happening around evictions as seen in the current special exhibit “Evicted,” which was inspired by a book with the same title written by Matthew Desmond, at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C.

“I think the conversation [over evictions] has been elevated beyond the state [of Maryland],” Wilkins said.

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

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