Kelly PowersSalisbury Daily Times
WICOMICO COUNTY, Md.— A mother of four called Habitat for Humanity in hysteria, as law enforcement stood outside her door a week before Thanksgiving to carry out her eviction. Notes on her door warned of the decision, but she hadn’t believed it.
Another grown man burst into tears meeting with Sheri Ewing, having never needed to ask for help.
“The moratorium has really made people think they cannot be evicted,” said Ewing, family services manager for Habitat in Wicomico County. “I’ve been very clear with anyone I’ve talked to that — ‘Yes, you can still be evicted.’
“It’s heartbreaking, watching these people cry.”
By July 25, a statewide pause on evictions was lifted. In August, cases filed prior to pandemic shutdown began to be heard, and sheriff’s offices were permitted to enforce evictions.
Now beginning on Nov. 16, the courts returned to “Phase III” — where courts are hearing tenant holding over actions, breach of lease actions and “processing of warrants of restitution for failure to pay rent actions.” This court order tells a sheriff or constable to carry out an eviction.https://2fb30d3db4f54bd5df7952f930cee5f8.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html
District Court will accept failure to pay rent filings — though hearings would not be set within the third phase of opening — and the court is processing eviction warrants for failure to pay rent actions.
“Let people know: Evictions are still happening,” Molly Hilligoss, Wicomico County Habitat for Humanity’s executive director, told Delmarva Now. “Tenants need to talk to their landlord, they need to not be afraid, they need to ask for a payment plan, they need to renew their lease.”https://2fb30d3db4f54bd5df7952f930cee5f8.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.htmlhttps://www.usatodaynetworkservice.com/tangstatic/html/psay/sf-q1a2z3be0d353f.min.html
Renters across the country have seen landlords try to skirt COVID-19 moratoriums, from accusing tenants of rule violations, changing locks or refusing to renew leases. These work-arounds to the patchwork of emergency state and federal orders created this year have become a national problem, USA TODAY reported. Your stories live here.Fuel your hometown passion and plug into the stories that define it.Create Account
Wicomico County saw 20 legal evictions carried out in August, 10 in September, 25 in October and 19 so far in November, according to an email from Sgt. Anthony Glenn of the Wicomico County Sheriff’s Office.
Glenn said about 80% of the time these cases do not end in actual eviction — his office has seen about 645 summary ejection notices since August.
“Those cases,” Hilligoss said, “they’re still moving forward in the court system.”
Defense takes effort
Hilligoss stressed Gov. Larry Hogan’s executive order doesn’t cover everyone.
The April 3 executive order applies to failure to pay rent and breach of lease cases over the state of emergency — protecting tenants from eviction if they’ve suffered “substantial loss of income due to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Judges review the tenant’s evidence of such an income loss.
“The other issue we’re seeing is the tenants are not going to court,” Hilligoss said.
“If Jane Doe doesn’t go to court, the judge doesn’t have a chance to hear her side. So the judge automatically files a judgment in favor of the landlord. And that can mean that within seven days, the landlord can file that warrant through the sheriff’s office to pursue the eviction,” she continued. “People need to go to court.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also has an affirmative defense order in place, preventing a landlord from evicting tenants under specific circumstances, until Dec. 31.
However, tenants must declare to their landlords that they have made effort to get rental assistance, their best efforts to make timely partial payments, that they lost income or faced extraordinary medical expense, and that eviction will force them to become homeless.
“Before things get bad, they need to advocate for themselves and be proactive,” Hilligoss said of struggling tenants. “If they think they’re going to lose hours from their employer, they need to call their landlord and say, ‘Hey, I’m worried about my job and hours. Will you be open to doing a payment plan? Or what are my options?’ “
The Habitat team said people cannot wait for an eviction notice, when their hands are tied.
Most landlords in the area have been “very cooperative,” according to Habitat, when tenants actively return calls, seek partial payment plans and work with them.
“Most of the landlords are really eager to keep their tenants in place,” Hilligoss said, noting the financial drain of starting a legal process like eviction.
Hilligoss said Salisbury residents should apply for rental assistance with Salisbury Neighborhood Housing Services. Wicomico County residents are encouraged to apply with Habitat online and begin the process of receiving rental assistance.
“There’s a lot of money we have right now,” Hilligoss said Nov. 20. “We have like $800,000 left in rental assistance — people need to apply for it. And then they need to follow through with all the documents, and we will help them every step of the way.”
Hogan’s office also just announced an additional $900,000 in Maryland Eviction Prevention Partnership Grants to Wicomico County on Nov. 23.
Tenants should be aware the process may take a number of weeks, so Habitat officials say being proactive in seeking the assistance is paramount. Up to three months of assistance is available.
Habitat and other area agencies continue working, as another potential pandemic shutdown seems to loom over Maryland and flu season continues.
“We’ve been able to help people, but there’s a lot,” Ewing said. “And it’s gonna get worse… That miscommunication that you can’t be kicked out, or can’t be evicted, is out there — and it definitely needs to be corrected.”