The economic downturn associated with the COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating for large parts of the U.S. housing market. This summer, one think tank estimated that more than 30 million renters in America could be evicted from their homes. In early September, a federal order temporarily blocked many residential evictions for the rest of 2020.

As service providers across the country wonder what will happen when that order runs out on Dec. 31, Catholic Charities is partnering with Baltimore County to begin meeting the needs of local individuals and families who are behind on their rent.

“The need is tremendous,” said Amy Collier, director of the agency’s Community Services Division. “With the unemployment rate being so high and the eviction moratorium being lifted, we can’t even imagine how many calls we will begin to get.”

In early October, Baltimore County announced its second round of funding aimed at preventing local evictions. The county named seven community-based organizations with which it will partner to support that effort, including Catholic Charities.

The agency has long provided rental and traveler’s assistance through the Samaritan Center at My Sister’s Place Women’s Center in Baltimore City, offering the knowledge and experience necessary to serve the local population. While Catholic Charities has never offered eviction-prevention support in Baltimore County, it provides a range of other services there.

“We really saw this as an opportunity to build on our foundation at the Samaritan Center – the experience and expertise we have in eviction prevention,” said Collier said, adding that the agency’s broader experience with housing – including permanent supportive housing – will also be helpful.

Responding to growing needs

Baltimore County set up a portal through which staff will receive requests, then channel them to one of the seven providers. Those partners will review applicants’ eligibility, determine the amount of support needed, verify appropriate documentation, and send payments directly to landlords.

Catholic Charities’ existing programs in Baltimore County will serve as temporary homes for this effort.

“One of our priorities is looking at Catholic Charities without walls,” Collier explained. “We’re not setting up an office space just for this in Baltimore County. We are going to be working out of the Samaritan Center. We can meet virtually or, when we need to go on-site to meet with someone, we will use one of our existing locations.”

Around 247,000 Marylanders are behind on their rent, according to the United Way of Central Maryland. In addition, a range of troubling factors – including historical racial discrimination, predatory financial practices, and a stark lack of affordable housing – affect the housing market statewide.

COVID-19 has only exacerbated these challenges for many. People who don’t have the option to work from home tend to have lower incomes and greater exposure – and therefore vulnerability – to illness.

In addition, the costs of housing in Maryland typically exceed 30 percent of income for most families, Collier said, adding to factors such as rising unemployment in the midst of the pandemic, increasing costs for basic needs such as food and transportation, and significant health care expenses for those affected by COVID-19.

The federal moratorium on residential evictions protects most renters affected by the pandemic, though some may have to prove their financial need in court.

While previous rental-assistance programs have covered a month or two of back rent, agencies expect the pandemic will set renters back many months. Nonprofits may not know the full impact of the current economy until 2021.

“We know that housing stability is fragile anyway,” Collier said, adding that the impact of the pandemic is now “somewhat anecdotal, and we won’t know until our numbers start increasing.”