AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine saw thousands of applications for a generous rent relief program in its first month, but the state has used less than 2 percent of the staggering $350 million in federal aid dedicated to it and will likely not come close to using all of the money.
The rollout of the program comes as tens of thousands of Mainers still face housing insecurity and the state continues lifting economic restrictions as part of an effort to recover from the pandemic-induced recession.
A U.S. Census Bureau survey in early March found 12 percent of Maine renters had “no confidence” about their ability to pay their next month’s rent, while only 55 percent had high confidence. A federal eviction moratorium, originally set to expire at the end of March, was extended this week through the end of June.
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A state-run rental relief program saw more than 22,000 applications last year, ultimately paying out more than $18 million in benefits to more than 10,000 households, according to Maine State Housing Authority data. The federal money, beginning after passage of a December stimulus bill, enabled Maine to make the program more generous, covering unpaid rent since March 2020, as well as three months of future rent at a time for eligible applicants.
The bill included $25 billion in rental relief funding, with a formula that allocated a minimum of $200 million to each state, to the advantage of low-population states. Maine is also among the states where people are least likely to rent, with only West Virginia having a greater share of owner-occupied housing, according to federal data.
The result was that Maine’s relief funding from the December bill averages out to more than $1,200 for each of the state’s roughly 162,000 renter households, according to estimates from the Terner Center for Housing Innovation. Vermont, with a population of less than half of that of Maine, got nearly $2,700 in funding per rental household. The money does not go as far in Massachusetts, which got just $456 per rental household at five times Maine’s population.
A March coronavirus stimulus bill added another $20 billion to the program, including $150 million for Maine. Despite the generous amount, the rollout of funding has moved slowly so far here, as it has in many states.
Since the program’s launch in March, local community action agencies have received 8,700 applications, according to MaineHousing, though the agency estimates that about 25 percent of applications are duplicates. Out of that total, only 573 households have received relief so far, with payments totaling more than $2.6 million, according to MaineHousing data. Another 504 households have been approved for $2.5 million in payments.
Applications for the program, which are available online, require several steps and, in most cases, submissions from both the tenant and landlord. Tenants must submit evidence showing they are behind on rent or at risk of eviction and face financial hardship due to the pandemic.
They must also present documentation of their annual or monthly income, which must be less than 80 percent of the median income for their county. Landlords also must fill out a short application, although tenants can proceed without that if the landlord refuses. Payments typically go directly to landlords, but can take several weeks after an application is approved.
Sarah Richardson of West Newfield is among the landlords who is still awaiting payment after her tenant was approved for six months of rental assistance covering January through June. Richardson described the application process as straightforward, but was frustrated to still be waiting for a payment as she has to pay her own mortgage.
“I can imagine they must have been absolutely inundated, but we all need to be making our payments,” Richardson said. “It just trickles down to everybody.”