In early July, Frederick leaders announced a roughly $3 million COVID-19 Emergency Rental Assistance Program to help county and city residents meet their rent payments and avoid eviction. But, the program has received fewer applications than anticipated, totaling roughly $500,000 in requests.

The county and city of Frederick partnered with the Religious Coalition for Emergency Human Needs when it launched the program July 13. It was set to expire on July 17 but has been extended until further notice.

Nick Brown, executive director of the Religious Coalition for Emergency Human Needs, said County Executive Jan Gardner, Frederick City Mayor Michael O’Connor and he had expected the program would have reached full capacity almost immediately. But applications so far have totaled only 280 to 300 cases of the roughly 550 to 600 that the program can support.

“Myself and county and city officials expected a full-on overrun,” Brown said, adding that a similar program in Baltimore hit around 1,500 applicants within the first five days that its portal was open. “One thing we were wondering [was] if it was in fact publicity… Did we not get the word out enough?”

Brown said his group will reach out to the Frederick County Association of Realtors so its members can spread the word about the program to landlords and their tenants.

He also added that the Religious Coalition has conducted extensive outreach about the program through press releases and information sheets with local partners as well as conversations with groups such as RISE, an immigrant rights coalition in western Maryland, to ensure access to information for Spanish speakers.

Brown wondered whether the lower number of applicants may signal that there isn’t as much need for rental assistance in Frederick.

“The best-case scenario is that there’s just not the need,” Brown said. “It could just very well be that the need isn’t present locally, which again, would be a great scenario for Frederick.”

Some groups still have concerns about applying

Cathryn Paul, a research and policy analyst at Maryland-based immigrant advocacy organization CASA, said that she heard of the Frederick-based program but added that the outreach about this and other programs has likely not been strong enough to those hit the hardest by the pandemic.

Several news articles and research reports have said that communities of color, families on welfare and undocumented groups are among those disproportionately affected by COVID-19 in cities nationwide, with many of them lacking sufficient state and federal resources to help them survive.

“This isn’t just a Frederick problem,” Paul said in an email. “This is an all-over Maryland problem. Outreach to immigrants and other Black and brown vulnerable groups [has] to be prioritized. The county should be thinking, ‘Who out of everyone has gotten nothing? Who is suffering the most?’”

Undocumented immigrants can apply to the Frederick program and may be eligible for the local funding because “there’s nothing that says if you’re undocumented you can’t receive it,” Brown said.

Yet Paul said undocumented communities still have concerns about applying to government-related relief programs that require basic personal information. Especially given recent and historic cooperation between local government and federal immigration officials nationwide, “you can’t blame immigrants for not trusting the government in a time like this,” she said.

Nationwide, undocumented communities’ concerns about applying to programs that require their personal information are also contextualized by recent articles that disclosed that Immigration and Customs Enforcement have access to databases containing information, such as home addresses, for certain immigrant populations.

While undocumented immigrants may apply to the Frederick program, Brown also said that it remains “even-keel[ed],” meaning there is no preference or allocation of specific funds to undocumented applicants or other groups who may be facing greater financial strain than others. Mayor Michael O’Connor also confirmed that the program operates on a first-come, first-served basis.

Immigrants particularly hurt by unemployment

As the unemployment rates in Maryland jumped from 3.5 percent in March to 9.8 by April, according to data from Maryland’s Department of Labor, the effects of unemployment have not been evenly felt, leaving some populations, including immigrant communities, more vulnerable to eviction, job loss and COVID-19 than others.

“I haven’t worked in three months,” said CASA member Zoila Leyva Monteflores in a video posted to CASA’s Twitter account. “I haven’t had any income, and honestly the rent has me worried, because I don’t have [anywhere] to go.”

Nationwide, immigrants have faced higher unemployment rates during the pandemic compared to their U.S.-born counterparts, according to Pew Research data which shows that the rate of unemployment for foreign-born workers in May was nearly 16 percent compared to just over 12 percent for U.S.-born workers. Additionally, immigrants who are not U.S. citizens nor U.S. nationals do not qualify for federal stimulus checks under the CARES Act, which immigration advocates have protested.

The Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act, which passed the House on June 23, would provide temporary financial and health protections to undocumented workers if made into law. The bill isn’t expected to pass the Republican-controlled Senate, with President Donald Trump calling it “dead on arrival.”

A call for improved state leadership

O’Connor, who said that the emergency renters’ assistance program is one of several city relief efforts intended to assist residents, nonprofits and small businesses hit hard by the pandemic, also said he hopes state officials are responding to the same data everyone else has about COVID-19.

“In a perfect world, the state and the counties and the city would all be able to move in uniform ways,” O’Connor said. “Our responsibility at the local level is to respond to the needs on the ground, in our community, the best way we can with the resources we have available.”

Statewide, organizations such as the Maryland Center on Economic Policy, Our Revolution Maryland and Communities United have joined CASA in a social media “Cancel the Rent” advocacy campaign that has been calling on Gov. Larry Hogan to suspend rent payments while the COVID-19 health crisis persists.

“@GovLarryHogan if you do not #CancelTheRent you will be failing our state. It is time for you to work for the people,” read one tweet from Our Revolution Maryland, an independent organization that advocates for affordable housing and progressive taxation.

On March 5, Gov. Hogan signed an executive order prohibiting certain evictions during the pandemic, but that is set to expire on July 25 when the federal moratorium ends. O’Connor said Frederick’s emergency renters’ program may see an uptick in applications after the moratorium expires, as the Maryland judiciary will resume reviewing eviction cases on July 25.

According to CASA’s Twitter account, CASA organizers will be marching to Government House, Gov. Hogan’s official residence, on Friday to protest the potential evictions, which organizers and residents have said will have implications for all Marylanders because those forced to leave their apartments would likely be unable to self-quarantine and could increase the risk of contracting and spreading COVID-19 even further across the state.

“If Governor Hogan doesn’t take action on housing relief immediately, we are [in] deep, deep trouble as a state,” Paul said, citing data from The Aspen Institute estimating that nearly 330,000 Maryland residents could face eviction by the end of the fourth tax quarter. “No one should be evicted right now. Period.”

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