MONTGOMERY COUNTY, MD - SEPT 6: Bills and a final eviction notice in the right hand corner of the door at an empty unit at the Enclave, a 1,119-unit apartment complex in Montgomery County were dozens of tenants are facing eviction. (Photo by Kyle Swenson/TWP (Kyle Swenson/TWP)

A half-dozen contenders in Maryland’s crowded race for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination made their cases this week at a forum on housing policies — marking an initial attempt to distinguish themselves during the first candidates forum before next year’s primary.

The forum, which was hosted by The Renters Alliance on Tuesday night and focused exclusively on housing issues, featured six of the nine Democrats who have so far declared in the race.

There wasn’t much daylight between the six candidates. Each agreed that swift action needs to be taken to deal with the housing crisis in the state, which has been exacerbated by the pandemic. And each took swipes at Gov. Larry Hogan (R), who is term-limited, arguing that he has not done enough to protect renters as pandemic-era national and state moratoriums on evictions have ended.

During the more than two-hour-long forum, the candidates all said they supported newly enacted state legislation that calls for tenants to receive legal counsel during eviction proceedings, and expressed disappointment that a mechanism was not put in place to offset the cost of legal representation.

John B. King Jr., former U.S. education secretary under President Barack Obama, said he supported legislation earlier this year that would have increased the court filing fee for evictions to pay for the tenants’ counsel. King said the legislation, which was pushed by Strong Future Maryland, a liberal advocacy organization he created last year, would raise the fee more than tenfold, which would have the added benefit of discouraging landlords from filing for eviction as quickly as some currently do.

Tom Perez, the former labor secretary under Obama and former chair of the Democratic National Committee, said Hogan could use federal funds already in hand to pay for a tenant’s access to legal representation.

“Right now, we have an emergency and this governor can solve that emergency with the stroke of a pen,” he said. “That’s what I would do if I were governor now. . . . The governor has been totally hands-off on this.”

State Comptroller Peter Franchot, who has previously called on Hogan to use the federal funds to provide relief to both renters and landlords, reiterated his push to allocate federal funds, some of which still has not been used and is in jeopardy of being sent back. Records from the U.S. Treasury Department indicate that of Maryland’s $401 million share of rental relief funding, state and local governments had spent $57.9 million as of July 30.

“These hundreds of thousands of low-wage earners could care less about what the legislature is doing and what might be done down the road. . . . What they are worried about is that they’re not going to have a home,” Franchot said. A spokesman for Hogan did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

Former attorney general Douglas F. Gansler said the issue simply comes down to a “need to make sure poor people have the same access to justice as rich people. That’s really what this issue is about.” He said until the legislature reconvenes, he would move for Legal Services to provide assistance. Former nonprofit executive Wes Moore said the right to counsel is “about fairness and about equity.”

Few of the candidates weighed in on a question about whether they support statewide rent stabilization.

Ashwani Jain, a former candidate for the Montgomery County Council, said he supports rent control, saying it is “really important in terms of providing people a sustainable way of paying their bills, knowing what bills are going to come up. The only exception is we can only do that if we are not raising property taxes.”

Del. Jheanelle Wilkins (D-Montgomery) said she was pleased to hear the candidates support legislation that would require a landlord to give a reason or “just cause” for evicting a tenant. The bill, which Wilkins has sponsored, has failed to muster enough support to pass in past legislative sessions.

Perez said the inability to get some of the housing changes passed, including Wilkins’s just cause legislation, was one of the “biggest disappointments” of the 2021 legislative session.

Wilkins said it was “significant and historic” to have the first forum of the 2022 primary focus on renters’ rights, affordable housing and eviction prevention.

“We want to ensure that candidates understand that they are committed not only for this moment and this crisis but for the long haul,” Wilkins said, adding that she was proud of the liberal ideas and stances put forward.

Three candidates were not at the forum. Former Prince George’s County executive Rushern L. Baker III, who was scheduled to participate, declined the invitation after his wife, Christa, died on Saturday. Forum organizers said they mistakenly left out former nonprofit executive Jon Baron and Baltimore business owner and economist Mike Rosenbaum. Matthew Lozak, the executive director of the Renters Alliance, said he is working to create a time for the three candidates to present their cases before its members.

The candidates vying for the Republican nomination are Kelly M. Schulz, the state’s commerce secretary; perennial candidate and former state lawmaker Robin Ficker; and Del. Daniel Cox, a conservative Republican lawmaker from Frederick County. Former lieutenant governor Michael S. Steele is exploring a bid.