New Balance sneakers squeaking on the tile floor, Matthew Losak (Lesotho 1985-87) pushed down a quiet hallway in one of the three towering high-rises of the Enclave, a massive apartment complex with more than 1,000 units in White Oak, Md. He checked a clipboard covered with half a dozen names and addresses. He then knocked on a door, listened, and knocked again.
“I’m from the Montgomery County Renters Alliance,” Losak announced to the man who appeared at the threshold. “I’m here to see if you need any help applying for the rent relief?”
The tenant, shaking off the shock of having a visitor at his door at dinner time on Labor Day, nodded. “They said I make too much money for that,” the tenant, who asked not to be identified, said.
“Who said?” Losak said, pouncing on the opportunity to help in a situation that appeared to be speeding toward a crisis point.
From the county government, Losak’s group and other housing advocates had received a list of renters facing imminent eviction. Now that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s national eviction moratorium has ended, those renters could be forced from their homes at any moment.
In response, Losak’s group was mounting a door-knock campaign to directly contact renters facing eviction to see if they have applied for their share of Maryland’s $401 million rent relief funding — a last-minute dash to prevent displacement.
As Losak now explained to the Enclave renter, he should still qualify for the assistance despite what he had been previously told. Losak handed the renter — who paid $1,300 in monthly rent — information on how to apply for up to $12,000 in relief, and he urged the man to act fast.
“You already have a judgment against you,” Losak said. “That’s what the red and white paper meant,” referring to a previous notice the renter had seen on his door.
The renter uttered an expletive.
Losak began moving back down the hallway, checking the clipboard for the next unit. At least the last tenant was there, he thought. “We’re finding many people are just gone,” he explained. “They’ve already self-evicted.”
The $46 billion rent relief package from the federal government was supposed to help both renters and landlords. Renters could fend off eviction after falling behind due to the economic turmoil of the pandemic; landlords could recoup the financial losses to their businesses.
But in practice, state and local governments have struggled to get that money to renters. According to a recent analysis by The Washington Post, only 12 percent of the first round of the $25 billion of the Emergency Rental Assistance Program was spent in the first six months of 2021. Even less of the program’s second $21.5 billion round had made it to renters as of June 30. Records from the U.S. Department of Treasury indicate that of Maryland’s $401 million share of rental relief funding, state and local governments had spent $57.9 million as of July 30.
In the months since, rent relief programs have ramped up just as their importance has increased. In late August, the U.S. Supreme Court knocked down a revised version of the eviction ban implemented by the Biden administration. As most state eviction protections had already expired — Maryland’s protections expired on Aug. 15 — in the aftermath of the federal moratorium’s end, rent relief has in many cases become renters’ last hope for keeping their homes.
Montgomery County’s rent relief program, which includes $59 million from the federal government, offers up to $12,000 in rent relief for renters who can show they owe at least $1,000 in back rent and have made at or below 50 percent of the county’s area median income of $99,435.
As of early September, the county has distributed more than $37 million in rent relief to around 6,600 households, according to Mary C. Anderson, the public information officer with Montgomery County Health and Human Services. More than 10,000 applications have come in for the program; just under 50 percent of the applications have been fully processed, with 20 percent currently active with case workers, and 33 percent waiting for processing.
The county, which shares a list of tenants facing eviction who haven’t yet applied with a handful of local nonprofits like the Renters Alliance, has also stationed staff at the courthouse to meet with tenants. The county has also prioritized getting relief to “those that are facing an imminent eviction, those in a high-needs area as designated by our homeless prevention index, and those that have experienced unemployment for 90 days or more,” Anderson said.
Despite public outreach from the county and community groups, as Losak worked his way down his list of Enclave tenants on Labor Day, he still worried the message about potential relief had not reached the most desperate cases.
At the next unit on his list, Losak knocked. Nothing. “My gut says they’re gone,” he said as he placed a flier with information about the county program under the door.
The next door. “Hello?” He knocked again, noting a brown welcome mat still positioned outside the unit. Was someone moving around inside? Another knock. “Sometimes they don’t know who we are and they think we’re here to evict them.”
Another door. Another knock. Losak placed another flier under the door. “It slides right in, meaning there’s no mat on the other side,” he said, meaning the tenant was likely gone.
Toward the end of his list of Enclave tenants, Losak knocked on a door and waited.
“Bless This House” was written on the welcome mat.
“Hello,” Losak said when a young man in his 30s opened. “I’m here to see if you have applied for rental relief?”
“No, I haven’t,” the tenant said.
“You must do it,” Losak said, explaining that court records show a judgment had already been issued against the tenant and his family. “It means they could come at any time and they are going to put you and all your stuff out on the street.”
Losak explained about the application process. “Do you have a computer?”
“I don’t have a computer.”
“Do you have a cellphone with Internet?”
“Yes, I can get to the website with my phone.”
“Call me tomorrow after 10 a.m.,” he said, handing over his card. Losak began to pull away but stopped short. “Do you have any children?”
The tenant answered that he and his wife had three children under the age of 10.
“Where are they going to go if you lose this home?” Losak asked. “Call me, it’s very important,” he said as the resident went quiet.
By Kyle Swenson
Kyle Swenson is a reporter with The Washington Post’s social issues team. He previously worked at the New Times Broward-Palm Beach and Cleveland.