Crisfield Public Housing Tenants Face Eviction Over Minor Debts

Public housing is designed to be a solution to combat homelessness, not a contribution to the problem. However, residents of public housing in Crisfield, MD, say that they're being evicted over minor debts. The city makes so many eviction filings against its tenants that a private contractor was hired to automate the process in 2019.

Crisfield's Eviction Filings

Crisfield is home to about 2,600 residents. However, its housing authority is one of the most prolific filers of evictions in the United States. The public housing complex has 330 units. The city filed 718 eviction notices in 2019. All of the eviction notices were for late rent. More than 30% of the tenants owed less than $100 at the time of the eviction filing.

Reasons for the High Eviction Filings in Crisfield

A researcher at the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism took a look at four years of eviction records for Crisfield and Richmond, VA. Late rent payments were the top reason why public housing authorities evicted tenants. In many cases, the amount owed was so small that the fee to file for eviction in the court was higher than the amount owed by the tenant. Diane Yentel, who is the National Low Income Housing Coalition's CEO, stated that the purpose of public housing is to accommodate individuals and families who have trouble paying their rent because of limited income. However, the lack of funding for public housing means that some of the local authorities look for any small reason to evict a tenant who owes a small debt. If the authority doesn't get the amount of rent due from the tenant, they can immediately file for eviction.

Response from Crisfield's Housing Authority

Don Bibb, who is the Executive Director of the Crisfield Housing Authority, said that a person who owes a dollar is in debt. He expressed no compassion for people who have a history of full and on-time payments who find themselves unable to pay their full rent. Many find his stance appalling.

What Residents Have to Say

One resident, who is a single mother, said that she's struggled to pay her monthly rent of $138 since the COVID-19 pandemic began. She went through an eviction while she was pregnant in 2018. She's had five eviction filings since then. She constantly worries about getting kicked out of her apartment and ending up on the street with her children.

Moratorium on Evictions

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued an eviction moratorium in March. It's set to expire December 31. Once it expires, all of the halted eviction notices can be processed by the court system. The onus is on the tenant to prove they can't pay their rent as a result of COVID-19.

Courts Put Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Many judges want to be sympathetic to the tenants, but circumstances don't always allow them to do that. Many housing authorities use the court as if it were a collection agency. Some tenants end up with several eviction filings in one calendar year. In addition to the rent owed by the tenant, the court costs, late fees and interest add to their financial problems.

What Maryland's Attorney General Has to Say

Brian Frosh, who is the Attorney General of Maryland, disparaged this use of eviction court. he said that he would like the state legislature to increase the eviction filing fee from $15 to at least $120. Maryland's current eviction filing fee of $15 is one of the lowest in the country. The $120 amount is the national average fee for filing an eviction in county courthouses.

What Community Organizations Think About the Evictions

Martin Wegbreit is the Director of Litigation at Central Virginia Legal Aid Society. He said that using an eviction filing as a tool to collect rent is indefensible. The United States Department of Housing and Urban Development doesn't collect eviction information on a national basis. However, it said that repeat filings against the same tenant are unfortunately common. Since 2017, Crisfield Housing Authority has filed 1,756 eviction cases for failure to pay rent. The annual number tripled between 2017 and 2019. Of those filings, about 50 tenants were forcibly removed. The rest of the tenants either paid what they owed or left their subsidized housing units on their own. It's not known if those evicted tenants ended up homeless or if they were able to get new vouchers.

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