AUGUSTA, Maine — A new federal rent relief program could provide a significant boon to both struggling Maine renters and landlords, but stricter requirements could slow the distribution of $200 million to those in need as the coronavirus pandemic remains far from over.
The $908 billion federal stimulus bill passed in December included $25 billion for rental relief. The funding formula included a minimum payment of $200 million to states, favoring smaller ones like Maine. It is more than eight times the total that the state spent on rental relief last year, allowing the state to cover some tenants’ rent for up to a year.
But the program is not up and running yet as MaineHousing, like counterparts in other states, waits for federal guidelines. It is likely to begin in February as demand for assistance remains high. The state’s first virus rental relief program last year attracted more than 22,000 applications, including 2,000 in a span of just a week when the program restarted in November.
A survey by the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition found that 82 percent of renters were able to pay December rent in full, but 35 percent skipped other bills in order to be able to pay rent. Nearly half of respondents with credit cards reported that they were carrying more credit card debt compared to the start of the pandemic.
“At first folks were able to pay their rent if they had a little bit of savings or they were able to figure out a way and as time has gone by, it’s become more and more difficult for them to keep up,” said Greg Payne, executive director of the coalition. “It’s sort of like, you can only hang on by your fingernails for so long before you fall.”
Once the new rent relief program is operational, the additional federal funding could allow it to cover significantly more than the state rental assistance did. Funding can be used to pay overdue rent back to April 2020 as well as cover some utility payments. President Joe Biden extended an eviction moratorium to March 31 earlier this month.
While monthly payments were capped at $1,000 under the first state rental relief program, the new program is expected to provide much more, said MaineHousing spokesperson Cara Courchesne, though specifics are still being worked out. Renters may be approved for payments of up to three months of future rent from the time of the application and may be able to apply again after three months. The program could cover up to 12 months of rent in total.
But MaineHousing does not expect to open applications until sometime in February as it is awaiting rules from the U.S. Treasury, Courchesne said. She added that the agency is working with local partners that administer the program in each county to hire and train staff.
Additional staffing could help community agencies, many of which struggled with the volume of applications last year. Several renters in the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition’s survey described waiting several weeks or months for a response after applying for assistance.
“It was so much stress on me that didn’t have to happen,” said one renter who ultimately received assistance.
The new program could also require more paperwork than Maine’s state rental assistance program. Initial guidelines would require applicants to provide documentation showing their annual income for 2020 was less than 80 percent of the median household income of their area, in addition to other documents showing they could not pay rent due to the coronavirus.
The National Low Income Housing Coalition authored a letter to the incoming Biden administration earlier this month urging it to modify the guidance to allow renters to self-certify their income, among other changes. Payne characterized the income rule “surprising and frustrating,” saying the additional paperwork would likely delay payments in Maine as community agencies are already likely to face a high volume of applications.
“There is going to be a very sharp demand at the beginning because you’ll have lots of people who have been waiting,” he said.