The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Local Md. officials plead for state aid as pandemic rent relief wanes

Needs persist — from Montgomery to Baltimore — as renters remain ensnared in a national affordable housing crisis

Dionne Ellington worked at a grocery store in Potomac, Md., but then injured her back and was unable to work for six months. Facing eviction, she packed her belongings into a storage unit and found a bed in a women’s shelter. (Doug Kapustin for The Washington Post)
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With local jurisdictions across Maryland and across the nation on the precipice of a massive funding cliff as pandemic-era emergency dollars run out, the Montgomery County Council is calling on the state to tap its budget surplus to keep rental assistance flowing to Maryland tenants at risk of eviction and homelessness.

The impending end of Montgomery County’s pandemic rent relief program follows the termination of expanded SNAP benefits at a time when food prices are swiftly rising. Temporary caps on rent increases and moratoriums on evictions have long since expired, and other pandemic-era aid programs are winding down, leaving many struggling households with few places to turn for help.

The plea — from officials in Maryland’s wealthiest county — builds on a call last month for state help from the Baltimore City Council, as elected leaders across the country seek solutions to help renters battered by uncertainty and ensnared in a national affordable housing crisis. In Maryland, leaders pointed out, robust relief efforts helped keep 100,000 people in their homes. But some observers say the state, which before the pandemic did not provide direct financial assistance to renters, cannot fund a new length of the safety net while facing an uncertain economic future that requires cuts to the existing budget.

“Now that the federal and state support is ending, we need to determine how to continue helping our residents who need it the most,” Montgomery County Council President Evan Glass (D-At Large) said in an interview.

The requests that Gov. Wes Moore (D) dip into Maryland’s $2.5 billion surplus for rental assistance come as state analysts last week warned of economic head winds that will require Moore to find $400 million in cuts to his proposed $63.1 billion budget. The governor’s office has not responded to requests for assistance and declined to comment for this article.

Although many state lawmakers representing Montgomery County said they support expanding rental assistance, the new economic projections complicate the matter.

“The new fiscal projections really are a reset on things in Annapolis right now,” said Del. Julie Palakovich Carr (D), chair of the Montgomery County House Delegation, who added that Maryland should do what it can to keep people housed.

Some of her colleagues in the House of Delegates agree that rental assistance is a worthy target for the state to take up, but perhaps not in the upcoming budget.

“Certainly our council has identified a particular and serious need,” said Del. Marc Korman (D), who represents District 16 in Montgomery County. But “there are a lot of needs,” he added in an email.

Before the pandemic, Montgomery County distributed about $3 million through its regular rental assistance program — a sum that pales in comparison to the more than $96 million that has been spent providing assistance to tenants facing eviction over the past three years.

More than 12,000 households in Montgomery County have received rental help since the pandemic began as residents faced job loss, expensive medical bills and other sudden financial hardships. An infusion of more than $100 million in state and federal dollars helped the county expand an existing program.

But in January, the county stopped accepting new applicants for its emergency rent relief program because it has spent more than two-thirds of the pandemic-era aid and will soon run out of money to give. The county has processed 70 percent of the applications the program has received and will finish processing the rest in the coming months.

Glass said the pandemic marked the first time that the county has truly been able to meet the needs of the residents facing housing instability.

“There are a lot of people in our community who have been struggling for a very long time,” he said, “and that need has not gone away despite the pandemic waning.”

Though the emergency funds are almost spent, the county still has tens of thousands of households that need help keeping up with rent. Some of those renters will be able to apply for ongoing rental assistance — but the number of people who will be helped depends heavily on how much money the county can muster to fund the program without covid-19 funds. If the council approves a proposed $30 million investment in the program, the county estimates those funds could serve about 2,800 households.

In the early days of the pandemic, Dionne Ellington, now 56, held tight to her essential job at a grocery store in Potomac, Md., which allowed her to keep up with rent for the two-bedroom apartment she shared with her adult son. Then she seriously injured her back.

She couldn’t work for six months while recovering, and the unpaid rent quickly piled up. Facing eviction, the immigrant from Jamaica, who has lived in Maryland since she was a girl, packed her belongings into a storage unit and found a bed in a women’s shelter run by Interfaith Works.

Her son, who has severe bipolar disorder and other mental health issues that prevent him from working, resorted to sleeping on the street. His health swiftly declined as he went without medication or a safe place to rest, Ellington said. She parked her Chevy on the street outside of the women’s shelter and left bottles of water, food, blankets and a toothbrush inside it for her son.

“He slept in there sometimes, so it was like a little home,” Ellington said. “Can you imagine a human being living like that?”

As soon as she could, Ellington returned to her job in the bakery at a Giant grocery store, where she had worked for 22 years. She started saving for a new apartment and, with the help of rental assistance, she and her son moved into a one-bedroom unit in Takoma Park. The assistance gave her the stability to keep up with rent when unexpected costs cropped up.

“I would beg them to please keep the rental assistance,” Ellington said. “For some people that’s a shoulder to lean on, and everybody needs a shoulder to lean on sometimes.”

The struggle of renters like Ellington is especially stark in Montgomery County, the most populous county in Maryland and one of increasingly sharp divides.

About half of renters in the county are considered rent-burdened, meaning they spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing costs. Nearly three-quarters of those rent-burdened households earn less than 50 percent of the average median area income, according to data from the Montgomery Planning Department.

As the county’s expanded rental assistance is ending, evictions are swiftly rising in Montgomery. The number scheduled in January and February increased more than 350 percent compared with the same time period last year, to 771, according to the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office. The number of evictions carried out also swelled to 136, compared with 47 during the same time period last year.

“Keep in mind, these numbers don’t even include the many people who get notified about an increase and manage to move to a cheaper residence or region, or in with a family member,” said council member Kristin Mink (D-District 5).

Earlier this month, six council members announced a package of legislation aimed at protecting tenants, which included calling for an additional $18 million in county funds for rental assistance this year, bringing the total allocated to the county’s rental assistance program to $30 million. But even that significantly expanded sum falls far short of the more than $100 million allocated over the last three years.

“This is a rich county. They should be able to help their residents,” Ellington said.