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Gov. Janet Mills’ pandemic orders and actions taken by Congress have protected Mainers from being evicted from rental property. That has kept people living in public housing, apartments and single-family houses from becoming homeless even if they can’t pay rent because of lost income.
On the other hand, delays in court proceedings have made it almost impossible for landlords to evict problem tenants, according to the lawyers who regularly represent them.
Although the courts have returned to normal hours of operation, eviction hearings for non-payment of rent or lease violations won’t be held before August under the court system’s reopening plan, unless a District Court judge determines action must be taken immediately to protect the safety of tenants and property.
Andy Samaras, who owns 27 apartment units and a single-family home in Bangor, is one of the few landlords in the state who was able to convince a judge that an emergency hearing was necessary to remove a dangerous tenant from 22 Ohio St. The hearing was held May 22 at the Penobscot Judicial Center before District Court Judge Gregory Campbell.
“This tenant caused a real potential problem to the safety of other tenants,” Samaras’ attorney, Joe Ferris of Brewer, said last week. “Threats were made and the police were involved and there was damage to the unit. This was some very bad behavior.”
The hearing was held remotely with Samaras and other witnesses participating from Ferris’ office, the judge and clerk working from the courthouse and the tenant, who represented himself, taking part by phone.
Samaras said the majority of renters living in his properties are good tenants. But a few are taking advantage of the situation and refusing to pay rent because the threat of imminent eviction is not hanging over their heads.
He said that he is owed between $12,000 and $15,000 in back rent, but must continue to pay taxes, mortgages and utilities on his rental units.
“I have tenants who’ve lost their jobs because of the pandemic, and I’m sympathetic to that,” he said. “Some of them have gone back to work now and are going to be able to catch up. These are good tenants. Landlords want to keep good tenants.”
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On April 16, Mills filed an executive order stating “no landlord or agent of a landlord or property owner may attempt during this state of emergency to evict a tenant by a means not authorized by law. Law enforcement, with guidance of the attorney general as necessary, are authorized to enforce this provision.”
She also extended deadlines for notices and said the order should remain in effect until 30 days after the governor’s state-of emergency order expires on Thursday. Mills could extend the order into July.
In response to Mills’ order and actions by Congress, which prevented evictions from federally funded housing such as Capehart in Bangor, Pine Tree Legal Assistance, which represents low-income tenants in eviction cases, has created a special page on its website to offer advice about dealing with rent problems during the coronavirus crisis. It reminds tenants that even if landlords are unable to take them to court until August, they still must pay rent.
“If you do not pay your rent, your landlord will be able to eventually evict you even if it is not until August,” a posting says. “If you have a lease, your landlord may be able to evict you after early August, even if you pay what is owed before your court date.”
Erica Veazey, staff attorney with the organization in Bangor, said that despite the measures in place to keep people in their residences during the pandemic, Pine Tree has fielded calls from people whose landlords tried to evict them illegally by changing locks or turning off utilities.
Tenants do not need a lawyer to rectify those actions, she said. Local police can speak with landlords about what they can and cannot do during the pandemic.
Portland lawyer David Chamberlain handles more eviction cases for landlords than any other in the state. He said last week that his clients are frustrated about their inability to force problem tenants or those who refuse to pay rent out of their properties.
“I have a client who bought a new home and rented out their old home,” he said. “The lease is up but the renters refuse to leave and are not paying rent. My clients want to sell, but they can’t tell a potential buyer when the house might be available because they can’t get rid of the renters. It’s a real burden for them.”
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Eviction proceedings can be costly to landlords, who must pay sheriff’s offices to serve paperwork each step of the way and attorneys to represent them in court. Each attempt to remove a tenant costs between $1,000 and $1,500.
Eviction statistics by county were not available last week, but statewide there were 154 eviction filings between March 18 and May 21, according to Amy Quinlan, spokesperson for the court system. That is far below the usual number.
In fiscal year 2019, which ended June 30, a total of 5,376 eviction cases were filed in Maine courts for an average of 448 cases a month. In a normal year, nearly 900 cases would be filed within a two-month period.
By the time Maine courts begin dealing with eviction cases in August, it will have a 4½-month backlog. Andrew Mead, acting chief justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, said Friday that he and court employees understand and share the frustration of people who must wait for their cases to be dealt with.
The priority during mid-March, April and May was to deal with cases “in which people were in danger of being hurt [or killed] and those involving constitutionally protected liberty interests,” he said.
Mead said the clerks are beginning to schedule matters that have been continued since March and new cases.
Chamberlain, the Portland lawyer, said the courts should consider allowing courts in rural counties to hold in-person eviction hearings in July since far fewer cases are filed in those courts than in Cumberland, York, Androscoggin and Penobscot counties. That would ensure that fewer people are in courthouses and allow for social distancing that might not be possible in Maine’s urban areas.
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Under Maine law, landlords cannot force tenants to leave without first taking them to court in a multi-step process that begins with a “notice to quit” for lease violations or failure to pay rent, according to information posted on Pine Tree Legal Assistance’s website. Landlords may give 60 days notice to tenants without stating a reason and 30 days notice for nonpayment of rent.
If a tenant refuses to move or is unable to make a payment arrangement to catch up on rent, the landlord may begin eviction proceedings by seeking a “forcible entry and detainer” in the local District Court. Notice of that filing must be served by the local sheriff’s office to the tenant, which should include a notice of a hearing date before a judge.
Tenants have the right to present evidence to the judge showing that they should not be evicted. Once a hearing is held and a judge rules in a landlord’s favor, a “writ of possession” is served on the tenant by the sheriff’s office seven days later. The tenant has 48 hours to move out after receiving that document.
“We have received comments from landlords, including small rental unit operators, for whom their very economic lives are at stake or a troublesome tenant is making life miserable for other tenants,” Mead said. “They make compelling arguments.
“We have also received comments from representatives of tenants who raise the specter of families being relegated to homelessness in the midst of a deadly pandemic,” the longtime jurist said. “Again, a compelling argument.”