Nearly 400 Maine tenants applied for assistance daily in the first week of a revived rent relief program as coronavirus cases continue to hit highs across the state and an eviction crisis looms at the beginning of 2021 with no federal stimulus on the horizon.
The third and most wide-ranging iteration of a relief program, run by the Maine State Housing Authority, offers up to $1,000 in monthly rental assistance to tenants whose incomes have been reduced by the pandemic. The program saw “huge interest” as applicants sought assistance at higher rates than earlier waves, according to agency spokesperson Cara Courchesne.
Renters can apply for funds to pay for backlogged October rent as well as monthly payments through December, when a federal moratorium preventing evictions for nonpayment of rent is set to expire. The funds are processed through nine regional agencies around the state.
Statewide, 2,731 tenants applied for aid in the week after the program began taking applications again on Nov. 2, on top of an additional 24 requests in Lewiston filed in November through a municipal program. Like a citywide program in Portland that expired in September, applicants there will be diverted to the statewide program when city funds expire.
It comes as signs of a looming eviction crisis show in Maine. Pine Tree Legal Assistance, which helps low-income tenants, reported a 20 percent uptick in calls for aid since August. Maine continues to smash daily virus case records. There were 1,944 active cases as of Wednesday.
Some property owners have sought to find ways around an eviction moratorium, in some cases filing evictions early for when courts are expected to take them up again in January. Greg Payne, director of the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition, said that roughly half of those facing eviction in Maine since the pandemic only owe two or fewer months of rent.
Congress has not passed a major coronavirus stimulus bill since March with one extended state unemployment program ending in mid-November and a federal one set to end in December. The Eviction Lab, a national tracking effort run by a team of researchers at Princeton University, has said the last stimulus “will provide families with some support, but in many cases not enough to make ends meet.”
The Maine State Housing Authority provided a first wave of rent relief in April, offering renters a one-time subsidy of $500 from roughly $5 million in state funds. In a second program from Aug. 3 to Sep. 30, it used an additional $2.2 million of block grant funds to offer relief to renters asking for up to $1,000 for up to three months of rent, allowing for back payments and for repeat requests from those who applied in the first program.
Program officers projected that money would run out in September, but it didn’t. The agency reopened the program last Monday, hoping that the coffers could sustain vulnerable renters through December, but it’s still too soon to say. It has worked with cultural brokers to translate its information into eight languages and administered funds through community agencies.
One earlier iteration of the program required tenants living in properties financed by MaineHousing to apply for assistance through a separate program, but those renters now apply through this one.
The rent relief applications could underestimate the number of tenants seeking help, Courchesne said, while some Maine landlords reached agreements with tenants to temporarily cancel rent during the pandemic emergency.