The government shutdown could jeopardize the housing of more than 500 households in Maine that rely on federal assistance to afford their rent.
Those Mainers are among 70,000 to 85,000 low-income households across the country that could be destabilized within weeks as a result of the shutdown, according to a letter housing advocates issued Tuesday to U.S. congressional leadership.
The advocates’ most pressing concern involves a housing program that largely assists the elderly and people with disabilities, known as Section 8 Project-Based Rental Assistance. Administered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the program is distinct from the Section 8 voucher program, which provides assistance directly to renters, and instead contracts with property owners to open their units to low-income families.
“Roughly two-thirds of these households are people who are elderly or who have disabilities; on average, these households have incomes of less than $13,000 per year,” the Campaign for Housing and Community Development Funding wrote to congressional leaders.
Contracts under the program that were due for renewal in December expired during the shutdown, which began Dec. 22, while others are due to expire in January and February.
In Maine, 24 contracts were scheduled to expire between December and February, affecting residents in 521 units across the state, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. As the contracts expire amid the shutdown, landlords stop receiving payments from the federal government, leaving them and their tenants in a state of uncertainty.
Without the funding that comes with the contracts, property owners will be limited in their ability to provide support services to their tenants and rehabilitate their units, the housing advocates warned. Property owners could raise rents on cash-strapped tenants as a result, they wrote.
HUD has proposed that private property owners use their own money to cover the shortfalls, according to the letter.
“The bills keep coming, but the housing assistance from the feds doesn’t,” said Greg Payne, director of the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition. “There’s only so long they can get by with that scenario.”
The units with the most residents affected are Barker Mill Arms in Auburn, with 111 subsidized units, and Greentree Apartments in Augusta, with 83.
“We can carry the costs for a time, but it’s frustrating,” said Rick Whiting, executive director of the Auburn Housing Authority. “Dealing with HUD is difficult enough, then you throw in a wrinkle like this.”
While larger housing authorities have reserves to lean on during the shutdown, many smaller housing projects in rural areas cannot weather the loss of the contracts, Whiting said.
“I could see some small developments already in trouble because of this,” he said.
To qualify for the program, at least 40 percent of the units in a housing development must be reserved for low-income families.
While he believes landlords will do their best to avoid evicting tenants as a result of the contract expirations, the lack of funding ripples out into the community, Whiting said.
“It’s not fun having the oil dealer call you or Central Maine Power or Emera or whoever … and you can’t pay them because in some cases 60 percent of your revenue is coming from the federal government, and they aren’t around to pay it right now,” Whiting said.
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