MD’s Eviction Lawyer Program Set to Launch with New Funding

Maryland’s Access to a Lawyer program for low-income tenants facing eviction has won two years of funding, a victory for advocates who have been keen to provide stronger legal support for tenants amid the coronavirus pandemic. COVID-19.

The program is expected to receive $12 million allocated as part of the budget for the coming fiscal year. Another $14 million is slated for fiscal year 2024, an amount lawmakers earmarked for the state’s abandoned assets fund.

The news of the funding comes a year after lawmakers first passed a bill providing access to a lawyer in the event of eviction – but, crucially, that law failed to identify a funding source for the program. The law made Maryland the second state in the nation to guarantee legal aid to low-income tenants, but provided no clear pathway for the program to start.

The funding set aside during this year’s legislative session will change that. The Maryland Legal Services Corporation, which administers the program, has begun planning to launch the service.

“MLSC is busy putting in place pieces of infrastructure that will be important once this funding comes to us so we can start operating,” said Deb Seltzer, MLSC’s chief executive.

MLSC will distribute the funding to legal service providers who, in turn, will deliver the access to counsel program.

Launching the program will be a colossal undertaking. MLSC hired a program manager, Karen Wabeke, to oversee the process.

“It’s incredibly exciting,” Seltzer said. “Basically, that’s what MLSC does: we raise and then distribute money for civil legal aid, and to be able to run a program like this on such a large scale really takes an investment.”

The program will address a major disparity: Most landlords have some form of representation when they go to court, while 99% of tenants do not, according to a 2020 Baltimore eviction study.

MLSC is working to establish a unified intake process so that tenants can be referred to a single resource instead of having to call multiple providers seeking legal help.

“For tenants, this will be a sea change, and we are incredibly excited and grateful to all of the partners who have worked to make this happen,” Seltzer said.

Vicki Schultz, chair of the Maryland Access to Counsel in Evictions Task Force and associate dean for administration at the University of Baltimore Law School, said adding tenant legal aid will require a change in the culture surrounding the rents court.

“So far it’s been a bit unbalanced,” Schultz said. “Landlords have been strongly represented through their agents or legal representatives, but only a small percentage of tenants have been represented, which will really level the playing field and allow us to think differently about how we approach the housing stability in Maryland.”

Attorney General Brian Frosh, who lobbied for the Access to Counsel program, celebrated the funding for the Legislature in a press release. He also pointed to other tenant-friendly laws that passed the General Assembly this year, including a bill that would allow tenants to protect eviction records from public access if the proceedings were committed during the pandemic.

Under another bill passed by lawmakers this session, courts will also be required to stay eviction proceedings if the tenant is actively seeking housing assistance.

And the justice system will need to start collecting and sharing data on evictions so that monitors can assess the disparities that exist and whether the access to a lawyer program is useful.

“In other states and other jurisdictions that have implemented this, you not only see a fairer system but a more efficient one, once it’s up and running, and better outcomes for tenants,” Schultz said. . “Maybe not everyone stays in the house they currently live in, but they have more stability and more ability to build up their defenses and perform better overall.”

Seltzer also pointed out that the program will need continued funding after 2024, when the money allocated for that session runs out.

“The job is definitely not done,” Seltzer said.

Ryan H. Bowman