In this October 2020 file photo, Bangor police along with homeless outreach workers and city officials visit the homeless encampment that had been growing along the Bangor Waterfront to offer resources and to inform them they needed to vacate the area. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

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Less than 2 percent of the massive $350 million emergency rental relief program available to Maine people has gone out the door to applicants so far. To us, that emphasizes a few things.

First, any Maine person or family struggling with rent or utility bills should look into this program and see if they qualify for assistance. There is a lot of money out there for rental relief, and there is nothing wrong with asking for help. That is especially true during a global pandemic.

Congress recognized the need for this funding on a bipartisan basis in December, passing a COVID-19 relief bill that resulted in $200 million of this funding. The federal government upped that support for rental relief in Maine by over $150 million in the American Rescue Plan Act that Democrats passed in March.

If someone is having trouble keeping a roof over their head, they should know that this assistance is out there. The program is being administered by the Maine State Housing Authority, and helps eligible renters pay rent and some utility bills retroactive to March 13, 2020. It can cover up to 15 months of rent.

Tenants must meet certain income limits based on their household size and where they live in the state in order to be eligible for the program. They must also have had their income reduced, experienced significant costs or faced other financial hardships due to COVID-19, or qualified for unemployment between last March and the time of their application. In addition, applicants must demonstrate that they are at risk of becoming homeless or losing their housing.

People can apply online or call MaineHousing at 1-800-452-4668 to receive a paper application.

According to MaineHousing, there have been approximately 8,700 applications through the program so far, with roughly 25 percent estimated to be duplicates. Of that group, 573 households have received relief totaling more than $2.6 million and another 504 have been approved for payments totaling $2.5 million as of Monday. So just over $5 million of the overall $350 million has been released or approved in the first month.

The application acceptance rate has been 92 percent, which tells us that a large amount of those 8,700 applications are still in the review process. This highlights the continuing imperative for MaineHousing and the community action agencies (CAPs) processing those applications to make the system as efficient as possible. That’s our second takeaway.

“Operationally, mechanically everything is working the way we want to,” MaineHousing Director Dan Brennan told the Bangor Daily News on Monday. He said his organization has also convened three forums to get feedback from landlords about the program. In addition to providing critical support to people who are at risk of losing their housing, this program helps ensure income for landlords at a challenging and uncertain time.

Josh D’Alessio, the director of Hope House in Bangor and a member of the Maine Statewide Council on Homelessness, emphasized that a lot of planning and coordination has prepared the state for this moment.

“I think the effort has been spot on, and the response has been meeting the need so far,” D’Alessio said. “I firmly believe that we’ll use and maximize every single penny that we’ll get.”

The initial $200 million for Maine rental relief expires in September of 2022, and the additional $152 million extends several years beyond that. So while it is essential that this aid gets out quickly to the people who need it now, it was never designed solely as an investment to be used all at once.

At the risk of getting ahead of ourselves, however, we have to wonder if Maine ( and other states) will see the availability of these significant rental relief funds outstrip the sustained need.

As MaineHousing and the CAPs continue to administer this important program, officials at both the state and federal levels should be thinking about more flexibility for this funding should some of it go unused. That means exploring other potential uses beyond rental relief that could help promote housing security and prevent homelessness. If the goal of these investments is to help people maintain stable housing and keep from falling into homelessness, then some further guidance or adjustment may be in order.

If there are remaining funds, Brennan said Maine “could absolutely do some wonderful stuff” to deploy it to other housing needs, like building up the supply of affordable units. For that to happen, there may need to be additional flexibility provided by the federal government.

Homelessness isn’t an unsolvable problem. Too often, inaction has stemmed from a lack of resources or a lack of will rather than a lack of ideas.

“I would say we know what to do,” D’Alessio said. “Ending and preventing homlessess as a science has arrived.”

He calls this “an amazing point in time.” For all the many housing and homelessness challenges created or exacerbated by the pandemic, this funding and this moment could provide a chance to tackle long-term problems in addition to averting more immediate crises.