PORTLAND, Maine — A large portion of Maine’s 315,000 renters could be at risk of eviction in the coming months if Congress cannot agree on a coronavirus aid package and a federal moratorium on evictions expires at the end of the year, according to advocacy groups.
Somewhere between 57,000 and 129,000 in Maine alone could be evicted in the coming months without further action, according to the Aspen Institute, a nonpartisan think tank. The finding is leading to action in Maine to better understand the problem with hundreds of Mainers already in a system that has been put largely on hold during the pandemic so far.
The Maine Affordable Housing Coalition compiled an evictions database using filings from 13 Maine courts in six counties — Androscoggin, Cumberland, Kennebec, Penobscot, Sagadahoc and York. It found 906 eviction filings in the first half of 2020. Nearly half of people served for rent nonpayment were late by less than one month, a coalition report found.
Without a relief package, the loss of income and enhanced unemployment benefits during the economic recession “places renters at heightened risk of eviction,” according to the new report that links the pandemic with existing housing insecurity that has gripped Maine renters over the last five years. Here are 5 takeaways to put the issue in context.
An eviction filing can stay with you for seven years, making it more difficult to find housing in the future.
Eviction filings can stay on your rental history for seven years regardless of the case’s outcome. Tenants who receive eviction notices are likelier to experience long-term housing insecurity than other renters, putting them on a separate track that “almost always results in a downward move to under-resourced neighborhoods and poor housing conditions,” according to the report.
“Many housing providers screen prospective tenants out of the application process based on the appearance in records of even just an eviction filing,” the report says.
Data farmers are selling eviction records to landlords.
There’s a cottage industry of people buying court records and selling that data directly to landlords who use it to screen tenants, said Greg Payne, the coalition’s director.
Eviction records are publicly available from courts. While landlords typically screen prospective tenants, most screening processes simply check whether a renter has been evicted. Some enterprising data farmers are now capitalizing by selling lists and databases of people who have received eviction notices even if they have not been evicted.
“You can imagine in a lot of these cases, you’re on the edge financially and then something happens — because life is life — and suddenly you can’t pay,” Payne said. “It’s a pretty quick trigger.”
There is a stark disparity between rates of landlord and tenant legal representation in Maine eviction cases.
It is “fascinating and depressing” how much legal representation matters for tenants in eviction cases, Payne said. Maine landlords are legally represented about 90 percent in eviction cases, while tenants are represented less than 20 percent of them.
Tenants with an attorney are significantly more likely to avoid an eviction judgment than those who are not represented, according to the study.
Lawyers from Pine Tree Legal, a statewide organization that provides legal services for low-income Maine renters, are almost solely responsible for tenants receiving counsel in the state. Of the 149 eviction cases covered in the study where information was available about tenants were represented by an attorney, 136 of those were represented by Pine Tree Legal.
But the organization is stretched thin even in normal times. Lawyers from Pine Tree Legal were able to represent 18 percent of the state’s roughly 5,300 eviction cases in 2019. Last month, Pine Tree Legal said they wanted to add 10 lawyers to help with eviction cases.
People of color are at greater risk of being evicted.
The evictions database does not track race, but national outlooks affirm that Black, indigenous and other people of color are disproportionately affected by the pandemic’s economic fallout, in part because they are disproportionately represented in low-income jobs.
About 33 percent of Black Americans and 35.3 percent of Hispanic or Latino Americans expressed “slight” or “no confidence” in their ability to pay next month’s rent, according to a recent census survey, compared with 17.4 percent of white Americans. In April, 61 percent of Hispanic and 44 percent of Black Americans said that they, or someone in their household, had job or wage losses due to the virus, compared with 38 percent of white Americans.
The Maine counties with the highest amount of evictions also contain the state’s highest populations of nonwhite residents. The study found 4,662 eviction filings in Cumberland County from 2015-19, an average of roughly 932 filings per year. Androscoggin County, which contains the cities Lewiston and Auburn, had an eviction filing rate more than twice the rate of Cumberland County — 5.7 percent of total renter households, another 922 filings per year.
Being evicted puts tenants at higher risk of infection for COVID-19.
The findings show that without a secure home, it is much harder for Mainers to distance or quarantine, if necessary. Evicted families are “often forced to double up with others in overcrowded housing conditions or move to a homeless shelter. Such living arrangements have been shown to increase the contraction and spread of COVID-19,” according to the report.