The Montgomery County Office of Legislative Oversight reviewed the eviction process and eviction data in Montgomery County and published their report early this October.
The report details the process tenants and landlords go through during an eviction, from the initial violation and court filing to the court hearing and judgment to the scheduling and execution of an eviction by the sheriff and landlord. The causes, consequences of eviction, and data specific to Montgomery County are also included.
The report ends somewhat disappointingly, with only a few weak recommendations that are largely friendly to landlords’ existing procedures.
There are other things to get excited about, however. The report indicates that the Montgomery County District Court in Rockville, where eviction hearings take place, will transition to electronic records. This will make it easier for landlords to search tenants’ eviction history, but it is also a chance for tenant activists to implement the Stomp Out Slumlords (SOS) program pioneered by the DC DSA. This program checks the court docket for filings related to evictions and then specifically canvasses individuals being sued for eviction to inform them of their rights early and encourage them to go to their scheduled court hearing.
The importance of attending an eviction hearing is reflected in the new evictions report. When a tenant does not appear to court, a default judgment is entered in favor of the landlord and the eviction proceeds. The SOS theory is that getting tenants to appear in court will make the legal process more expensive for landlords, and the higher cost may discourage superfluous evictions.
Early notice of impending eviction, access to legal information and resources, and appearing in court are all mentioned in the report under the “Court-Based Eviction Prevention Programs” as positive efforts other jurisdictions have enacted. In Montgomery County, where 45,000 judicial eviction cases were filed in 2016 alone, a program like SOS could see success. DC’s SOS program has also led socialists working with tenants to establish tenants’ associations and directly aided renters in struggles with their landlords.
Other important information contained in the report includes information on Montgomery County’s homeless population and the connection between eviction and persistent or periodic homelessness. It also points out that the highest number of evictions in the County occur in the Silver Spring, Wheaton, and Glenmont areas. The primary apartment structures where evictions take place are not necessarily big high-rises either. Eviction cases are filed in “garden apartments,” which are multi-family buildings without elevators usually ranging from 3-5 story-high.
It is also important to note the report finds that the inability to afford rent is a major factor leading to evictions. Commonwealth has not shied away from sharing the graph (fig. 1, opposite) showing the County’s stark scarcity of affordable housing for those making under 30% the Area Median Income (AMI). The report contains a similar revealing graph (fig. 2), showing the number of families that are rent-cost burdened — they pay more than 30% or 50% of their income on rent. The number of households who are rent burdened is highest in those families who are making under 50% AMI.
Further, the study specifically points to housing conditions and utility payments as significant burdens on paying rent. Many low-income renters live in “older structures with significant maintenance needs and inefficient appliances and heating and cooling systems.”
This is important to note as it points to a serious weakness in the supposition that the process of new houses “filtering” to achieve affordable housing alone can provide affordable and stable housing. In fact, relying exclusively on homes aging into affordability on their own may put tenants at an even greater risk of displacement.
A strict perspective of filtering is to let a building age into affordability “naturally” rather than with government policies like public housing or rent controls. But at that point in the apartment building’s lifecycle, the landlord has every reason to step in and do something to earn a higher return on investment.
In a very close-to-home case, the Blair House in Downtown Silver Spring was far more affordable due to its age before the landlord renovated the building and made it comply with “green” LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, standards. The costs of the landlord were passed onto the tenant in the form of higher rents. In other scenarios, the landlord simply evicts tenants (there being no Just Cause laws in Montgomery County, yet. See our story on Del. Wilkins’ Just Cause bill), bulldozes the building and sells it to a luxury development company. Perfectly acceptable in the view of filtering advocates.
If there is one final lesson of this groundbreaking new report, it is that the situation of tenants in Montgomery County is far more drastic than the liberal ideology that permeates every layer of our government and institutions can comprehend.
Readers can find the full report here