Six Democratic gubernatorial candidates laid out their plans to tackle housing insecurity and protect tenants at a Tuesday night forum, coalescing around reforms like access to counsel in eviction cases and rent stabilization.
Democratic gubernatorial candidates Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot, former Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, former Obama administration official Ashwani Jain, former U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr., former nonprofit CEO Wes Moore and former U.S. Secretary of Labor Tom Perez attended the Tuesday evening forum hosted by the Montgomery County Renters Alliance.
Maryland Matters Founding Editor Josh Kurtz, alongside Baltimore Sun reporter Pamela Wood and Washington Post reporter Kyle Swenson and attendees asked candidates about a wide range of proposed housing reforms.
Here’s what the candidates had to say about tenant protections, eviction prevention and affordable housing in Maryland:
Access to counsel in eviction cases
The Maryland General Assembly passed a bill from Del. Wanika T. Fisher (D-Prince George’s) during their 2021 legislative session to provide tenants access to counsel in eviction cases — but a separate bill that would’ve raised court filing fees and eviction surcharges to pay for that access to counsel didn’t pass before the session ended.
Candidates expressed their support for giving tenants the right to counsel in eviction cases at the forum.
King said his progressive advocacy organization Strong Future Maryland supported Democratic Attorney General Brian Frosh’s effort last year to raise court fees and summary ejectment surcharges to fund access to counsel.
“We have to have a right to counsel for tenants that is funded so that tenants are supported when they go to court,” King said in his opening remarks.
Perez said that Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) should use some federal rent relief funding to pay for the expanded access to counsel until the General Assembly passes a more permanent funding solution. He also said the state should include diversion programs as part of the eviction process.
“This governor can solve this emergency with a stroke of a pen,” Perez said.
Franchot, who pushed for the fast disbursement of rent relief funding at a recent Board of Public Works hearing, said federal rent relief funding needs to be used to fund the initiative in the short term. He said Marylanders at risk of eviction can’t afford to wait until the General Assembly reconvenes for assistance.
“Hundreds of thousands of low-wage earners who are facing eviction couldn’t care less about what the legislature’s doing and what might be done down the road,” Franchot said.
Moore said that while the vast majority of landlords have counsel in eviction cases, only a small number of tenants do. He said providing tenants with access to counsel is “the just thing to do and it is the right thing to do.”
Gansler said he supports a full right to counsel in civil cases including evictions, and said the state should promote legal aid services until such a law is passed.
“When both sides have counsel, you’re more likely to come to a satisfactory resolution for both sides,” Gansler said.
Just cause eviction laws
HB 1312, introduced by Del. Jheanelle K. Wilkins (D-Montgomery) during the 2021 legislative session, required that landlords provide a “just cause” to evict a tenant. Just cause eviction laws are meant to shore up housing stability and protect tenants from unnecessary evictions, according to the housing policy organization Local Housing Solutions.
Just cause provisions were removed from Wilkins’ bill in committee, and the legislation failed to pass before the end of the 2021 legislative session, but candidates praised the proposed reform Monday night.
“We have to have just cause protections to make sure that the landlord is required to provide you with a notice, a reasoning, and at least some sort of effort to remedy the issue before going straight to evictions,” Jain said. “And again, not only is that going to help more people stay in homes and housing, but it’s going to be better for the economy and better for the community as a whole.”
King said candidates need to be clear about their policy stances on issues like access to counsel and just cause eviction reforms — which he supports — in their campaigns.
“One of my fears is, if this campaign is waged in generalities, not in specifics, we will not have a clear mandate to act,” King said. “Just Cause Eviction laws, yes or no? If yes, say it in a campaign and let’s campaign on that.”
Gansler likewise voiced his support for just cause legislation.
“We have to have a governor who stands for the principle that people should not be evicted from their home, unless there’s just cause to do so,” he said.
Perez said his “biggest disappointment” of the 2021 legislative session was that a package of housing reforms, including Wilkins’ bill, didn’t pass. He said he hopes the General Assembly will try again when they return to session.
“Success is about persistence and it’s not just just cause, but it’s other things,” Perez said. “I’d like to deal with appraisal issues in the home purchase context and some real barriers to entry for people who are trying to buy a home.”
Moore said conversations around eviction reforms like just cause legislation need to go beyond housing policy.
“We’re talking about things like how do we make rent more affordable and how do we think about preventing eviction and just cause, all really important things,” Moore said. “The other thing we must also couple that with is how are we making sure that people are getting paid a fair wage.”
Rent stabilization and affordable housing
Candidates also discussed rent stabilization, a reform highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic when some local jurisdictions in Maryland, including Prince George’s County, placed temporary restrictions on rent increases and late fees. They also touched on how they would increase the state’s stock of affordable housing as governor.
Maryland has no statewide rent stabilization or rent control, although the city of Takoma Park has a longstanding stabilization law.
Jain said he supports rent control — but said such a program should only be undertaken if the state limits its property tax increases.
“Rent control is really important in terms of providing people a sustainable way of paying their bills, knowing what bills are going to come up,” Jain said. “The only exception is, we can only do that if we’re not raising property taxes.”
Franchot agreed with Jain, and said he was concerned about small landlords’ property taxes if rent stabilization rules are enacted.
“The devil’s in the details,” Franchot said.
King said Maryland needs a “statewide approach” to rent stabilization and other tenant issues. He advocated a holistic approach to housing policy by funding public transit and building up communities in addition to housing, and said he supports building the Red Line in Baltimore.
“By not building the Red Line project in Baltimore City, Gov. Hogan set Baltimore back 20, 30, maybe even 40 years,” King said, adding that he supports building light rail in southern Maryland. “We have to invest in transit as we invest in housing.”
He also argued for reforming zoning laws in order to make affordable housing easier to develop.
Moore said building affordable housing also needs to mean investing in education, transit and access to medical services within communities.
“This is not about how we move people to opportunity, this is about how we move opportunity to people,” Moore said.
Gansler advocated for renovating existing buildings into affordable housing rather than building entirely new units, citing concerns about urban sprawl.
“I don’t think the answer is to build more houses,” Gansler said. “There’s plenty of houses out there.”
Franchot echoed Gansler’s concerns about urban sprawl.
Speeding up rent relief funding
Maryland has received hundreds of millions in federal rent relief funding, but that money has been slow to get to tenants and landlords. While state and local governments’ disbursement of rent relief funding has increased in recent months, candidates said the state should be doing more to speed up the process.
Franchot reiterated his calls for streamlined rent relief throughout the forum.
“It is held up in a kind of pattern of incompetence that results in the very meager allocations that are made,” Franchot said.
Moore said the state government needs to work more closely with local jurisdictions to get out rent relief funding, and cautioned against putting all the blame on local governments for slow rent relief disbursement.
“The state can do a better job, and the state can actually take leadership and work in partnership with a local jurisdiction,” he said.
King said the state could be learning from local programs, like some jurisdictions’ partnership with United Way to bundle rent relief applications by working directly with landlords.
The current administration has a broader pattern of not coordinating with local governments, King said. “You talk to county executives and they’ll tell you they heard about some of the COVID policy changes at the governor’s press conference,” he said.
Perez said state officials should be working with the judiciary and sheriffs to find out which tenants are facing eviction in order to expedite rent relief funding to them.
“We should know, every person in this state, who is about to get evicted, so that we can provide that relief. We can move them to the front of the queue, so that doesn’t happen,” Perez said.
Baltimore tech entrepreneur and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mike Rosenbaum, who along with former Clinton administration official Jon Baron was not invited to the forum, said in a statement that “despite millions of dollars being available to keep people in their homes, the vast majority of funds still haven’t made it into the pockets of struggling Marylanders. This is what frustrates people about government, and it spotlights why we need new leadership who understands how to make these systems work for regular people.”
Former Prince George’s County Executive and gubernatorial candidate Rushern L. Baker III (D) withdrew from the forum following the death of his wife, Christa Beverly Baker, on Sept. 18.
Watch the full forum here.
By Bennett Leckrone