Thousands of struggling Maine renters are seeing a two-month backlog for their rent relief applications, as understaffed local agencies struggle to keep pace with the volume of applications and a bulkier process that requires more documentation.
Unlike earlier rental assistance efforts, the latest program is “much more administratively burdensome,” according to Shawn Yardley, CEO of Community Concepts, a community agency that facilitates the program for Androscoggin and Oxford counties as well as the city of Brunswick.
Maine’s latest rent relief program is funded by the second federal COVID-19 stimulus package passed in December, which provides $200 million in rental assistance funding to the state. The U.S. Treasury Department released new guidance for the program on Feb. 22, 2021.
But the latest wave of the Emergency Rental Assistance Program has come with some snags.
Last year’s rent relief program only required signatures by the landlord and tenant. This year, there’s “a lot more verification that we have to see ourselves in order to approve,” Yardley said, including rental agreements, leases and proof of ownership.
Mainers have had access to several waves of a state rental relief program since the start of the pandemic. The latest allows renters whose incomes have been affected by the coronavirus to pay past-due rent and utility bills due as far back as March 13, 2020, and includes people who live in subsidized housing. Almost all have been facilitated through the Maine State Housing Authority and processed through local community action agencies like Community Concepts Inc.
The “administrative burden” led to a backlog of “thousands of people” as soon as the latest relief program launched in mid-March, Yardley said. The agency has doled out $2.1 million in rental assistance since March 12, approving 97 percent of applications.
Mainers facing long turnaround times for rental assistance are not exclusively in Androscoggin County, a spokesperson for Maine Housing said. Applications in Kennebec, Somerset, Lincoln, Sagadahoc, Washington and Hancock have higher rates of pending applications in the queue.
“In some areas the challenge is the sheer volume of applications, in others it’s staffing issues, in yet others it is both,” said Cara Courchesne, communications director of Maine Housing, adding that the program “does have additional federal requirements compared to the previous rent relief programs.”
Maine Housing is redeploying additional staff to community agencies where they can, Courchesne said.
Community Concepts hired and trained 8 to 10 new staffers to handle the surge of demand for rent relief. The agency took on the responsibility of processing requests from Lewiston renters with this wave of the program, a task that city staff handled in 2020.
“It’s sort of like building a plane as you’re flying it,” Yardley said.
He anticipates that they’ll be able to clear the backlog in “the next two to three weeks.”
“We’re really conscious of what it means to families and landlords,” Yardley said. “We’re pushing it.”