PORTLAND, Maine — Intakes for new cases have increased statewide by more than 20 percent in the past three months since federal protections under the CARES Act expired, according to lawyers representing Maine renters facing eviction.
Pine Tree Legal Assistance, a Maine group that defends low-income tenants, has received 805 cases from Aug. 3 through Oct. 26 — a 20.3 percent increase over intakes that the agency received over the same time period in 2019.
Lawyers there have seen a spike of requests for counsel in October, receiving 435 calls compared with 368 over the same time period.
Pine Tree Legal Assistance lawyer Katie McGovern said the high number could be a “leading indicator” of forthcoming evictions. She attributes the increase to a rise in Mainers facing evictions who do not yet have court dates scheduled.
“People call us at any stage of the process,” McGovern said. “Given our increases in volume, I wonder if we’d see the increases first and then the courts would.”
The number of renters who seek counsel could grow exponentially at any time if legal action is filed against them. Renters can receive a summons to their eviction court hearing with as little as 7 days notice, while a Complaint must be filed no later than one day before the hearing.
The U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention has issued a moratorium on evictions that expires at the end of 2020. It doesn’t relieve renters from paying rent, but protects tenants who can’t pay from eviction during the state of emergency. Renters financially affected by the coronavirus pandemic must submit a form and deliver it to their landlord.
The moratorium has curtailed the number of statewide evictions, which remain down from last year. There were 818 evictions filed with Maine courts from Aug. 1 to Oct. 23, compared with 1,247 over that same period in 2019.
Though aimed at keeping tens of millions of Americans facing eviction in their homes, the language of the CDC-issued moratorium has been open to interpretation by judges and landlords.
After property owners pushed back against the moratorium, the CDC issued a “non-binding guidance document” allowing landlords to start eviction proceedings against tenants early. Landlords have also sought ways to evict tenants for reasons other than nonpayment of rent. The National Association of Home Builders filed a federal lawsuit seeking to dismiss the moratorium entirely, calling it federal overreach.
In those cases, tenants would still seek representation, either because they do not realize they have the right to stay or feel they are “being intimidated” by their landlord, McGovern said.
The economic fallout brought on by the coronavirus pandemic has worsened housing insecurity. In turn, health officials fear housing insecurity could also worsen the pandemic.
“Evictions threaten to increase the spread of COVID-19 as they force people to move, often into close quarters in new shared housing settings with friends or family, or congregate settings such as homeless shelters,” according to the CDC.
Greg Payne, director of the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition, found that many facing eviction in Maine since the pandemic only owe two or fewer months of rent.
Mainers have been eligible for a patchwork of rent relief programs since the pandemic began. On Monday, the state reopened a program that would grant renters harmed by the pandemic up to $1,000 a month for rent payments in October and November, and December if funding allows. 14,000 Mainers have received rent relief since April, according to MaineHousing, the organization facilitating the program.
But Payne and others fear that without federal relief mirroring the CARES Act, the looming evictions crisis is only being kicked down the road.