In Baltimore, MD, Budget Advocacy, MD Renters' Rights
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See below for JUFJ’s testimony on the preliminary Baltimore City FY 24 budget. Mark Martin wrote this testimony.

My name is Mark Martin. I live in Bolton Hill, and I am submitting this testimony on behalf of Jews United for Justice (JUFJ). JUFJ organizes more than 1,600 people in the City to support local social, racial, and economic justice campaigns. 

Jewish tradition demands of us: “Choose life, so that you may live” (Deut. 30:19). We are disappointed that the FY 2024 Baltimore City Preliminary Budget comes up short of this goal. Consequently, we are here to support the demands of our coalition partners in Baltimore Renters United (BRU) to revise the FY 24 budget to protect the safety, fairness, and affordability of housing for Baltimore’s renting families. 

Specifically, we urge you to: 

  1. Allocate at least $1.6 million for implementation of the City’s Right to Counsel in Evictions (RTC) law (of which at least $500,000 should be set aside for renter outreach and education to be conducted by community-based groups). 
  2. Allocate $25 million for Emergency Rental Assistance to prevent evictions.
  3. Allocate $2 million for DHCD Housing Safety Inspections. 

As a lawyer who has for years provided, pro bono, legal information to people caught up in rent court in the District of Columbia, I have seen first-hand the many problems tenants face, most devastatingly, the fear and dislocation associated with evictions. Evictions undermine family and neighborhood stability and threaten the health and education of children — and, in Baltimore, hit people of color hardest. Further, evictions cost the City substantial amounts of money, as dispossessed tenants are forced to draw more heavily on public services.

A few years ago we worked with BRU and then-Council President Scott to enact a framework for tenants to obtain access to counsel in landlord tenant cases. Providing lawyers is an established, cost-effective way to redress the gross power imbalance between landlords (most of whom are represented in court) and tenants (very few of whom are), and is a crucial tool in the effort to prevent evictions. 

The City’s RTC law is supposed to be fully implemented by April 1, 2025. Unfortunately, however, by contrast with FY23, the City has not allocated any City funds for implementation of RTC in FY24. This failure will make meeting the implementation deadline impossible and would be a betrayal of the promise of the original RTC legislation. That should be corrected. 

It would be no answer to say that the City can just rely on State money under Maryland’s own RTC law. Baltimore’s law covers legal proceedings that the State law does not. In particular, State funding does not cover lawyers taking on rent escrow cases, where tenants can demand that landlords fix substandard housing conditions, which threaten tenants’ life, health, and safety. 

In the face of the disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, the federal government stepped up to provide emergency rental assistance that helped thousands of renters avoid eviction. But this funding is quickly running out, while renters, particularly those with low incomes, remain in crisis. The financial dislocations arising from the pandemic continue — e.g., fewer available work hours; skyrocketing rents (some increased by 19% during 2021 and 2022); asset depletion — leaving households with no buffer to keep them from homelessness when small financial setbacks inevitably happen. Predictably, evictions are now rapidly rising, in some months exceeding pre-pandemic levels. 

Accordingly, there is an urgent need to maintain funding for emergency rental assistance. The United Way estimates that an allocation of $25 million would help nearly 8,000 City families avoid eviction and the crushing effects it produces for both tenants and the wider community. Other jurisdictions, including Anne Arundel, Howard, and Montgomery Counties have allocated funds to meet this urgent need, and Baltimore City should, too. 

City housing inspectors perform essential services, as first responders (via 311) to landlords who allow dilapidated housing to persist throughout the City and as auditors of private landlord licensing inspections. Yet, DHCD reports that only a fraction of available positions are filled, in part due to below-market salaries, and that it is unable to keep up with the demand for Housing Code enforcement. The City should therefore allocate an additional $2 million for recruiting, training, and retaining housing inspectors. 

This year, the police department and Sheriff’s budget have increased by $5 million and $3.5 million, respectively. Additionally, the City plans to give away $39 million in tax subsidies to developers of market-rate rental housing located primarily in the white L. Rather than investing in the same failed pattern of increased police spending and subsidizing of wealthy developers, let’s make critical investments in community needs, such as affordable and safe housing. 

We respectfully urge the Board of Estimates and the City Council to make these modest, affordable, yet essential adjustments to Baltimore’s budget. As President Biden likes to say: “Show me your budget, and I’ll tell you what you value.” The City should move forward with investing in housing for Black, brown, and low-wealth communities instead of more investment in our expansive police budget and subsidies for luxury residential housing, in largely white areas.

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