Eli Pousson/Baltimore Heritage /Flickr
Renters in Maryland can still be evicted if their landlord chooses not to renew their lease. Legislation in the state's General Assembly would ban the practice temporarily.
Eli Pousson/Baltimore Heritage /Flickr
During the pandemic, some renters in Maryland are learning a hard lesson: Not even a moratorium on evictions can stop them from losing their homes.
That's because some landlords are taking advantage of another legal avenue for eviction that isn't covered by the national ban or Gov. Larry Hogan's executive order on evictions.
In Oct. 2020, state data show that Maryland landlords filed 552 court cases seeking to evict tenants not for failing to pay rent, but for overstaying their leases. That represents a 117% increase in such filings over the previous year. In pre-pandemic times, eviction suits related to expired leases, which are called tenant holding over actions, made up around 1 to 2% of cases filed in the state, according to the Public Justice Center.
The sudden rise in filings stems from eviction prohibitions on the state and federal level, says Zafar Shah, an attorney at the Baltimore-based nonprofit. "Landlords have realized that they can just file a tenant holding over because [the eviction bans] don't protect against lease expiration or non-renewal," Shah says.
Here's how the process works: If a tenant hasn't paid rent for a while and the landlord wants them out, the landlord can simply opt to not renew the tenant's lease, after providing 30 to 60 days' notice (notice requirements vary by jurisdiction). If the renter doesn't move out by the time the lease is up, the landlord can file a tenant holding over action, laying the groundwork for an eviction.
The Centers for Disease Control's eviction moratorium and an April 2020 order from Gov. Larry Hogan provide a legal defense against eviction, but only in situations where a tenant can't pay rent due to COVID. Neither directive protects people whose landlords decide to not renew their leases. It's a glaring loophole that landlords have seized upon, Shah says.
"Within the next couple of weeks or months, we might see a huge uptick in evictions based on [these filings]," Shah says.
Progressive Democrats in Maryland's General Assembly are trying to address the issue with legislation. Bills in the state's Senate and House of Delegates would effectively eliminate tenant holding-over actions until April 30, 2022. An amended version of the House bill cleared a key committee vote this week and is now headed to a floor vote.
During a hearing on the Senate bill Wednesday, Prince George's County resident Karla Martinez testified that eliminating tenant holding over cases during the pandemic would keep her family housed. She said the landlord at her Riverdale Park apartment complex — Park Tanglewood Apartments — has canceled the leases of other tenants who have been unable to pay rent.
"The leasing office has threatened us multiple times with eviction," testified Martinez, a student at Bladensburg High School. "I am scared that we could soon be put out on the street... simply because the landlord will not renew our lease."
A property management company listed on the complex's website did not return a phone call requesting comment.
Prince George's County resident James McCray is in a similar situation. Last month, the 38-year-old father of two received a letter from his landlord informing him that his lease would not be renewed after April 30, 2021. McCray lost his job during the pandemic and hasn't paid rent in 11 months, he says. He eventually received some money from unemployment, but he decided not to put it toward his rent after he says an employee in the leasing office told him his lease wouldn't be renewed even if he paid in full.
"I want to be able to stay in this apartment. I don't want to mess up. But if I hold this money, at least a majority of it, at least I can try to make some maneuvers to make sure we're in a good situation," McCray says.
McCray's landlord, the Baltimore-based company Signature Properties, did not return a request for comment.
Property owners and their surrogates oppose any restriction on lease non-renewals during the pandemic and afterward. The bills in the General Assembly have attracted forceful opposition from members of the Maryland Multi-Housing Association, which represents owners of multifamily buildings across the state.
In a Maryland Senate committee hearing this week, Kathy Howard with Regional Management, Inc., which oversees a dozen apartment and townhome communities in the Baltimore region, testified that landlords don't terminate leases just to evict tenants who haven't paid rent.
"A landlord decides to end the lease for a lot of different reasons," Howard said, adding that her company has decided to end leases "because there is an unfortunate no meeting of the minds anymore between the landlord and tenant, and it's time for the contract to be over."
Rebekah Damen Lusk, a Frederick-based attorney who represents tenants and small landlords in disputes, says her landlord clients have sought to cancel leases when their life plans change.
"I've had clients who have moved. They would like to sell their house. They no longer want to have a property in this area because they're retiring, and they don't want to be burdened with having to have a tenant or deal with the property," Lusk says.
As long as landlords provide the legally required notice before they terminate a lease, Lusk says, that should provide ample time for the tenant to find another living situation.
As lawmakers debate whether to strengthen eviction protections during the health crisis, at least 194,000 Maryland households remain vulnerable to eviction, according to the Chicago-based firm Stout. The company estimates that struggling tenants in the state now owe more than $380 million in back rent.
Maryland has received more than $400 million in rental assistance from the federal government during the pandemic. The state is now working on distributing more than $258 million in rent help statewide, with $143 million heading toward jurisdictions with populations of 200,000 or more.
Sponsors of the legislation that would ban tenant holding over actions through April 2022 also want to prohibit landlords from evicting tenants who receive receive rental assistance from the state.
If property owners can still terminate a lease after their tenants pay what they owe, the money will amount to little more than a bailout for landlords, says Zafar Shah with the Public Justice Center. He says landlords are less likely to keep a tenant they predict will fall behind on rent again, even after the pandemic wanes.
"As long as landlords can non-renew leases, they're probably going to do it," Shah says.
But the attorney says he doubts that legislation working its way through the General Assembly will offer the durable layers of tenant protections that he and other supporters are seeking.
"If want to have effective utilization of the rent relief money, we've got to do something on the legal end to make sure that there are carrots and sticks," the attorney says. But the final bill is "probably not going to include as strong a protection as we want."
This story is from DCist.com, the local news website of WAMU.