A little over week after the billboard on top of Mayor Jack Young’s campaign headquarters was changed by an artist-activist to declare, “Cancel Rent and Fuck The Police,” Baltimore City announced it was allocating $13 million in rental assistance. 

Baltimore announced a moratorium on evictions in March and while Young’s announcement is far from “cancel rent,” advocates’ calls for decisive action on rent assistance for weeks now have finally been acknowledged.

“In addition to the human cost of families potentially becoming homeless, the eviction, shelter, and re-housing process would be a high cost for both landlords and the City,” Young said in a press release. “The use of these funds to stave off evictions potentially caused by COVID-19 will help workers who have lost their income and are behind on their rent. Protecting renters from eviction during the COVID-19 recovery phase will also help protect the city’s overall economic health.”

The fund will be operational within the next few weeks and would be funded through the Community Development Block Grant Programs in the CARES Act. Stakeholders including housing advocates and the rental industry will work to establish the fund, Young’s office explained.

“Housing Commissioner Michael Braverman is currently working with a broad cross-section of individuals to stand up the program,” Young’s spokesperson Lester Davis told the Beat. “Mayor Young and Commissioner Braverman will publicly communicate additional details in the coming weeks.” 

Due to the pandemic, a growing number of tenants have been threatened with eviction by landlords and management companies, according to Carol Ott, Tenant Advocacy Director of the Fair Housing Action Center for Maryland. 

Ott’s caseload has skyrocketed, increasing nearly five times what she had the same time last year with, “the bulk of those cases” happening since COVID-19. She wants to know if landlords will be receiving funds directly or if they will go to tenants and either way, she added, there must be a process that ensures tenants are given credit for their rent.

“There needs to be transparency in that process,” Ott said. “There needs to be oversight to make sure that the people who truly need that money are getting it.”

So far, the details have not yet been worked out beyond the basics that the program will help tenants pay past-due rent and offer legal counsel if they go to court and fight their landlord. Baltimore is behind other local jurisdictions in launching their rental assistance programs. Montgomery and Prince George’s County have already started accepting applications for their programs. 

“The Mayor’s rental assistance and eviction prevention program is an excellent start to address the looming wave of evictions as unemployment soars and tens of thousands of families cannot pay rent,” said Public Justice Center attorney Matt Hill in Young’s press release. “These funds will be invaluable to assist with past due rent and to provide legal counsel to tenants and hold landlords accountable for complying with the law. We look forward to continuing to work with the Mayor and City Council on additional steps to ensure safe, stable, healthy housing for City residents.”

At $1,400, Maryland has the fourth highest cost of rent for renters likely impacted by the economic crisis, according to a report by the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at University of California, Berkeley. Unemployed workers receiving benefits pay 34%-54% of their benefits on housing. A renter is considered “rent-burdened” when they spend more than 30% of their income on housing, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. A 2016 Abell foundation report found that “more than half of Baltimore’s renters lived in housing they cannot afford.” 

Caitlin Goldblatt, a Baltimore tenants rights advocate explained that the $13 million in rental assistance is simply not enough to help the number of Baltimoreans that need it. 

“$13 million would be insufficient as direct financial aid, and could force tenants to receive judgments (which could affect renting in the future) to access the funding that is there,” she said. “And it would still put an undue burden on tenants because they’d have to wait to be sued by landlords and come to court.”

The rental assistance announcement came on the same day that hundreds of laid off workers testified about Maryland’s unemployment system that has left many without any assistance months into the pandemic. Gov. Larry Hogan claimed the system was “completely fixed” last week, but many testified they have yet to receive any benefits, and are left struggling to pay for food and rent.

Goldblatt says a better solution would be to simply cancel rent—as the changed Jack Young billboard demanded earlier this month: “The city could cancel rent, the state could cancel rent, or Congress could cancel rent. It’s not about logistics or the extent of legislative or executive power—it’s about willingness to do so, and who has already bought by the real estate lobby,” she said.