Tracy Munch looks over her belongings after an eviction team removed all of her family items from her foreclosed house on February 2, 2009 in Adams County, Colorado. Smith said she and her fiance had been renting from an owner, who collected the monthly payments but had stopped paying his mortgage. The bank foreclosed on the property and called the Adams County sheriff's department to supervise the eviction. They managed to borrow enough money to rent another house for themselves and their four children, she said, but not in time to avoid eviction. John Moore/Getty Images

Last week, Baltimore housing advocates held a “Truth Commission” in front of Baltimore City Hall, declaring that elected officials had failed to protect residents from a housing crisis worsened by COVID-19. The group, which included members of Fair Development Roundtable, Housing Our Neighbors, and United Workers, warned of a looming eviction catastrophe if a city moratorium on evictions is allowed to expire on July 25 as currently planned.

Community members said they were putting the housing system on trial, and highlighting how official policy had failed to protect renters and the homeless.

“We’re going to put Baltimore City on trial today,” said Mark Council, a leader with Housing Our Neighbors who has experienced homelessness for five years.

“The pain and precarity that was already felt in our communities has only deepened and expanded,” said Adriana Foster, an organizer with United Workers. “We know that people have been without food, without healthcare, losing jobs and resources and left without protection. But this is an important moment where people are rising up, demanding transformative change like defunding the police and an end to state violence against black people, and demonstrating important shows of resistance in the movement for Black lives.”

Nearly half of U.S. households have lost employment income, and nearly one in four renters were having difficulty paying rent, according to the Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey.  COVID-19 has worsened already dire situations facing many residents of cities like Baltimore, where a 2017 report found two in three Black families face liquid asset poverty, or lack the savings to cover basic expenses for three months if they lose their jobs.

On May 29, Pennsylvania allocated $175 million to rental assistance and an additional $10 million to homeless assistance. On July 1, New York State passed a law preventing the eviction of tenants who faced hardship due to COVID-19. Advocates are calling on lawmakers to do the same in Maryland, as well as ending the practice of putting those experiencing homelessness into shelters.

“These shelters are not the answer,” said Council, who said it’s impossible to socially distance within them.

Speakers at the Truth Commission called for relocating anyone experiencing homelessness into hotels or other alternative housing: “They have the money in the city, they have the houses,” Council said.

“We have distributed hundreds of masks to shelter residents because places like the Greenspring Shelter fail to provide them. Residents have also reported on my shelter outreach visits not getting soap or hot water. Even these emergency shelters put in place because of COVID-19 are putting people at risk,” said Gerardo Benavides, an organizer with Housing Our Neighbors.

Baltimore City has launched a $13 million rental assistance program, while Gov. Larry Hogan has allocated $30 million statewide. But this falls far short of the need.

In a letter signed by 52 organizations and over 500 residents, The Public Justice Center called on Maryland to allocate $175 million from the $1.3 billion received from federal funds to stave off a looming eviction crisis caused by COVID-19.

“Such a wave of evictions and homelessness will jeopardize public health and the early stages of economic recovery,” the letter says.

Jaisal Noor

General Assignment Reporter

Jaisal is a host, producer, and reporter for TRNN. With his expertise in education policy and systemic inequity, he focuses on Baltimore, Maryland. He mainly grew up in the Baltimore area and studied modern history at the University of Maryland, College Park. Before joining TRNN, he contributed print, radio, and TV reports to Free Speech Radio NewsDemocracy Now! and The Indypendent.

Jaisal's mother has taught in the Baltimore City Public School system for the past 25 years.