On Aug. 15, a little over a week before the Supreme Court ruling, Maryland’s legal protections shielding tenants from eviction during the coronavirus pandemic had expired. The next day, Ballou and her sister were scheduled to be evicted after falling behind on their rent. With the help of an attorney from the Public Justice Center, the sisters had secured a hearing Aug. 19 to argue they should not be turned out under the latest eviction moratorium from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which applies to areas with “substantial and high levels of community transmission.”
At the start of August, Baltimore City did not have enough coronavirus cases to qualify under the latest version of the order. Within a week, the transmission level had increased to the point where the city was covered by the protection. But it was unclear if the order would still protect the sisters.
“We were pending eviction on Monday, so does that still mean on Thursday we can still be covered by the CDC protection?” Ballou had wondered.
On Aug. 19, she waited outside a courtroom in Baltimore to make her case to the judge.
Local judges had discretion to interpret the moratorium since the policy was put in place in September 2020, leading to uneven enforcement. Some judges maintained the policy meant courts should stop hearing all eviction cases. Others contended the policy meant courts could still hear cases and rule against tenants, just hold off on removing them. Landlords found other ways around it, such as not renewing a tenant’s lease. Evictions continued.
But the goal of the CDC moratorium, which was extended in full four times, was always the same: to keep renters housed during the virus’s contagious march. Overall, the Eviction Lab estimates the policy prevented 1.55 million eviction filings between September 2020 and July 2021.
Housing advocates criticized the Supreme Court on Friday for removing that protection just as coronavirus cases have begun to spike again nationwide.
“The tragic, consequential, and entirely avoidable outcome of this ruling will be millions of people losing their homes this fall and winter, just as the delta variant ravages communities and lives,” Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, said in a statement.
Another major reason the White House kept extending the moratorium was to give local governments more time to distribute $46 million in rent relief to tenants. But as the July 31 deadline neared, relief was still slow getting to renters struggling financially because of the pandemic.
As of the end of July, Maryland had spent $57.9 million of the state’s $401.5 million share of money from the Emergency Rental Assistance Program’s first round.
Ballou had been a customer service representative for a logistics company but switched jobs in the early days of the pandemic. The work stoppage interrupted her income.
But the major drain on the household was Dillard’s health costs. She suffered a raft of medical conditions, including diabetes and heart problems. Dillard used a wheelchair or a walker to get around. The cost of her medications, and the $80 a day Ballou spent getting to her new job in ride shares, made the sisters behind on rent.
The landlord filed for eviction in January, and a judgment was entered against the sisters. Knowing she needed to begin saving her paychecks for a down payment on a new apartment, as well as application fees for two tenants, Ballou let unpaid rent of $1,150 stack up. Between March 2020 and August 2021, the sisters racked up just over $10,000 in unpaid rent, according to Ballou.
When the judge finally called Ballou’s case number, her attorney approached the bench and explained to the judge they were asking for protection under the order.
“There’s no CDC order attached here,” the judge said, flipping through paperwork.
“I have it right here,” Ballou’s attorney answered.
“We need it,” the judge said.
After looking over the document, the judge closed the file. “Judgment is stayed until the expiration of the CDC order,” she said.
“Thank you so much,” Ballou managed to say in a cracked voice.
Ballou learned about the Supreme Court ruling Friday morning, while her sister was in the hospital for a broken hip.
C. Matthew Hill, an attorney at the Public Justice Center, is bracing for a deluge of cases. “Folks who had some sort of eviction judgment put off or postponed are now facing immanent eviction,” he said. “That is going to be thousands of families in Maryland, and at a time when the state counties have only spent a small portion of the rent relief money from the federal government. This was a preventable public health disaster.”
Ballou is now waiting to hear back from her attorney and the local United Way about options for fast-tracking new housing.
“In the meantime, I’m going to get me some more boxes and pack up what I can,” she said.