Silver Spring in Montgomery County. Image by Andrew Benson licensed under Creative Commons.

A Montgomery County delegate has just submitted a bill that would prevent landlords from evicting tenants without a good reason. That's good news for the approximately one third of county residents who are renters.

Voters in Montgomery County have elected an exciting group of state delegates to the General Assembly in Annapolis, many of whom we endorsed in the 2018 election. Delegates from East County are already at work on legislation around housing, land use, and other issues of interest to readers.

One of those delegates, Jheanelle Wilkins of District 20 (Silver Spring, Takoma Park), is introducing a revised version of a just-cause rental eviction bill to the Montgomery County Delegation. Wilkins herself is a renter, and she’d like to make sure that Montgomery County renters have the same protections as those elsewhere in the country.

Why is just cause eviction legislation necessary?

In the US, we’re conditioned to think of home ownership as a landmark of “adulting.” However, about a third of people never own their own home, and those numbers could be rising. Sometimes people are long-term renters by choice, but often, especially in an expensive region such as ours, they rent out of necessity.

Imagine that you are one of the 35% of Montgomery County residents who does not own the home you live in. You’re living in a rental building with your child who attends a nearby elementary school. You used to move around a lot, but you’ve been in this same building for a couple of years, and you’re happy you can give your child some stability. You have the commute to work all figured out and you don’t worry about getting fired for coming in late. You also don’t usually worry about paying your rent because you get a regular paycheck.

One day you get a notice that you have to leave your apartment in two months. There’s no explanation, and you suspect the management company wants to replace you with tenants who can afford to pay a higher rent. Or maybe they didn’t like that you mentioned the mold in the bathroom that one day.

All of a sudden, you’re stuck looking for a new place to live. You don’t know whether you’ll have to change jobs because your next apartment might not have an easy commute to where you work now. Your child will probably have to leave their friends and go to a different school. You also know that, most likely, you’re going to have to pay more in rent in the next place.

From National Building Museum exhibit on “Evicted,” 2018. Image by the author.

In 2017, more than 800 households were evicted from rental housing in Montgomery County. Some were for failure to pay or for breaches of a lease, but many, like in the hypothetical above, were for no reason at all. It’s not currently necessary for a landlord to give a reason in Montgomery County.

Wilkins’ bill would remedy this situation so that landlords would have to give, in addition to 60 days notice, one of a list of stated reasons (aka “just causes”) to evict a tenant. A just cause could be improper behavior on the part of the tenant (including causing substantial property damage, disorderly conduct, or illegal activity), or failure without reasonable cause to allow the landlord to enter the premises for inspection or repairs.

In addition, the landlord may issue an eviction notice if they wish to take the unit off the market, either permanently or temporarily, in order to engage in repairs or renovations (after obtaining permits) or to provide the unit for personal use by close family members such as a child or parent.

Landlords would still be able to evict on a faster timeline, as little as two weeks, if the tenant has breached the terms of the lease, or for “behavior by a tenant or a person who is on the property with the permission of the tenant which demonstrates a clear and imminent danger to the tenant, the landlord, or other tenants,” according to the Montgomery County Landlord-Tenant Handbook. In these situations, the eviction must go through a court process.

Why did just cause eviction fail to pass before?

Many other jurisdictions, including the District of Columbia, already have just-cause eviction legislation. However, getting these rental protections passed in Montgomery County has been difficult. Wilkins attempted to pass a similar bill last year, but it died in committee.

The previous bill included a more controversial element that prevented evictions in cases where landlords refused to offer lease renewals with “substantially similar terms,” i.e. where landlords offered renewals at significantly higher rents, with the assumption that the tenant would not be able to pay and would have to vacate.

After extensive discussions with landlords and tenants last summer, Wilkins has removed any language in the most recent iteration that could be construed as interfering with regular rent increases or promoting a form of rent control.

So why is this controversial now?

Landlords and their supporters often see just cause eviction laws as a usurpation of their authority over their own property. They are concerned that limiting the reasons for evictions could make it harder to evict problem tenants and result in a loss of time and money in long court battles.

However, as mentioned above, this bill would not affect the ability to evict tenants for failure to pay rent or other more egregious offences. Rather, it's intended to cut down on evictions where a clear cause cannot be stated. This bill only applies to the “tenant hold-over” category of evictions where landlords refuse to renew leases without reason.

Some landlords are concerned that tightening tenant protections would result in fewer landlords willing to do business in the county, thereby resulting in a shortage of rental housing. This argument suggests that, following the law of supply and demand, rents may go up on existing properties. The conclusion of this line of thinking is that deregulation of rental restrictions actually aids renters.

This line of reasoning is perverse. If there’s a housing shortage, the solution is to allow more housing to be built, through zoning and regulatory reform, and to make it easier to build housing. The solution to high housing costs is not to displace vulnerable populations in existing affordable housing.

When I spoke with Wilkins, she told me that she has seen no evidence of runaway rent increases in any of the jurisdictions across the nation that currently have a just-cause eviction bill. In her testimony to the Montgomery County delegation on December 2, she stated, “We have the opportunity in front of us to ensure that families are secure in their rental homes and do not face destabilizing evictions… just cause has been done many many times before and we can do it here.”

Renter’s rights are an issue for urbanists and smart growthers

GGWash’s mission is to grow a region where all people can choose to live in walkable, transit-accessible communities that are welcoming and diverse. When renters can be evicted at-will, this jeopardizes the stability of the neighborhood. If we want to work against displacement and help the hypothetical person in the example above stay in their community, we need to be in favor of stronger rental protections.

Last summer, members of the #GGWashReads book club read Matthew Desmond’s Evicted. Many of us also visited the National Building Museum’s exhibit about the book and about housing instability. We learned that evictions lie at the intersection of chronic poverty, high housing costs and housing shortages, and unscrupulous landlords and other agents poised to take advantage of people in a vulnerable position.

Individuals and families facing frequent evictions have a hard time making a foothold in a community, and often can’t hold down a job because they spend so much of their time in housing court, looking for housing, or moving or storing belongings.

This proposed bill is a step in decreasing evictions and building more stable, successful, and socioeconomically diverse communities in Montgomery County.

Correction: 10,000 of about 45,000 eviction cases moved to trial in 2017, and there were about 800 evictions that year.