Salisbury landlords file lawsuit on rent restrictions

Landlords in Salisbury, Baltimore City and Howard County are suing those jurisdictions over new laws that prohibit rent increases during the Covid-19 pandemic, saying they are unconstitutional.

“While well-intentioned in their efforts to protect financially-vulnerable tenants during an intensely difficult time, the Acts are too blunt an instrument to pass constitutional muster and will visit severe, and in some cases multiplicative, harms on Plaintiffs and similarly situated housing providers, who are trying to navigate serious property management concerns during a pressing financial and public health crisis,” the landlords said in the lawsuit filed June 15 in U.S. District Court.

Among the 23 plaintiffs are 16 rental property companies that own a combined 884 units in Salisbury. The largest are GNI with 285 units, RCP with 108 and Tide Mill with 104.

The legislation in Salisbury was adopted on June 1 and bars rent increases during states of emergency and requires landlords to refund any increases that went into effect after Gov. Larry Hogan declared a state of emergency on March 5.

It was part of the city’s Next Step program designed to help city renters, first responders, low-income residents, businesses and houses of worship amid the pandemic.

The plan took aim at landlords in the city, some of whom Mayor Jake Day singled out for conducting illegal evictions and adding to Salisbury’s homeless population in the midst of a public health crisis.

Day said he knew of 40 instances of tenants being illegally removed from properties during the pandemic, and called the practice “indefensible.”

Similar laws were passed in Baltimore on May 11 and in Howard County on May 22. The four plaintiffs from Baltimore own a combined 863 units, while the three plaintiffs from Howard County own 724.

The lawsuit alleges landlords in the three jurisdictions were “deprived of their rights to possess, use, manage, and dispose of their property. Defendants have done so, and will continue to do so, without providing just compensation to Plaintiffs.”

The laws also prohibit landlords from increasing rent “in accordance with settled, agreed-upon lease terms,” according to the lawsuit.

Last month, U.S. District Judge Stephanie A. Gallagher denied the landlords’ request for a temporary restraining order.

The judge agreed that landlords are suffering from the same “economic havoc” all businesses have faced because of Covid-19.

“On the other hand, this court is understandably reluctant to disturb legislative enactments, intended to address the needs of Marylanders during a time of sincere desperation,” she wrote.

As your community newspaper, we are committed to making Salisbury a better place. You can help support our mission by making a voluntary contribution to the newspaper.