A robust rental assistance program has managed to keep Maine renters in their homes despite fears of mass evictions following the end of federal protections.
Maine has been faster than most states in distributing rental assistance from two congressional COVID-19 relief packages, according to state data. That’s allowed tenants to avoid evictions due to non-payment of rent as a patchwork of federal prohibitions on evictions have expired in recent weeks. However, other types of evictions are still happening.
A federal government moratorium on evictions that had been in effect since last year expired July 31. Then, an Aug. 3 U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention rule halted evictions in counties with high or substantial levels of COVID-19 transmission. But that ended last week when the U.S. Supreme Court struck it down.
Evictions in Maine slowed during the pandemic due to myriad factors such as the federal moratorium, court closures and the availability of rental assistance, said Greg Payne, director of the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition.
The state implemented its Emergency Rental Assistance Program in March to disburse the two waves of federal aid, he said.
Maine received $200 million from Congress in December, and another $152 million in mid-March from the American Rescue Plan Act. Payne called the $352 million total a “wild” amount.
“The amount of that for a state like Maine is remarkable,” he said.
The Maine State Housing Authority has approved more than 10,000 households to receive almost $58.4 million, according to data released Thursday, with most of it going toward covering rent or addressing rental arrears.
Despite initial challenges, Maine has become one of the most successful states in disbursing its rental assistance money, though it still has spent far from a majority of its funding. It had spent 28 percent of the $200 million from the December package as of Friday, placing it 11th in the nation, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
Nationally, states have spent about 25 percent of their rental assistance funds from that first congressional aid package.
The Maine State Housing Authority disburses the money through community action programs in each county. Almost $6.6 million has been distributed in Penobscot County through Penquis, said Denise Lord, MaineHousing’s senior director for planning and communications.
Despite the assistance, some 17,000 Maine households, or 15 percent of renters, were behind on rent as of Aug. 2, according to the National Equity Atlas’ rent debt dashboard. They owed a total of $42.5 million in back rent. In Penobscot County, there were 2,150 tenants who owed back rent totalling $4.75 million. That worked out to about $2,200 per renter household.
The relief programs have allowed larger property owners to withstand the pandemic, even with non-paying tenants, said Paul Cook, the founder of Maine Real Estate Management, which oversees 3,500 units across Maine.
“We haven’t seen a crush of non-payment of rent,” Cook said. Most tenant disputes have been for reasons other than non-payment, such as tenant behavior, he said.
“Rent relief has been such a godsend for people,” he said. “I think it was probably the difference for a lot of people between having a place to live and not having a place to live.”
While MaineHousing hasn’t seen an uptick in eviction filings for non-payment of rent, it has reported hearing about more filings for no-cause evictions, Lord said.
Those could include scenarios in which a building was sold and tenants were asked to leave so new owners could do major repairs and seek higher-paying renters, she said.
“Those are really more market forces, as opposed to inability to pay rent,” Lord said.
Maine is becoming a more expensive place to rent, and the pandemic exacerbated a statewide lack of affordable housing, said Erica Veazey, a lawyer at Pine Tree Legal Assistance in Bangor who represents tenants in eviction cases.
“Things are, at this point, identical to how they were before the pandemic even began,” Veazey said.
Pine Tree Legal has received more calls for legal assistance this year than in 2020, including six times as many calls from people who reported having their rent increase during the pandemic, she said.
Outside of Portland, Maine doesn’t have rent control and there are no rules in place to prevent landlords from raising rent once a lease has ended, Veazey said. Portland’s rent control ordinance went into effect Jan. 1 and caps increases at 10 percent.
There has also been an increase in the number of unhoused people in Bangor during the pandemic, said Sam Bullard, a volunteer with the Greater Bangor Housing Coalition.
She attributes that to a lack of affordable units and Bangor’s position as a regional service hub. The coalition has expanded its efforts in recent months to provide meals and supplies to those without housing. But those are band-aid solutions, she said.
“It’s mostly just helping treat some of the wounds, superficially, to a problem that runs much deeper,” Bullard said.
As protections have ended, organizations are taking steps to keep renters aware of their options.
MaineHousing contracted with Pine Tree Legal and Legal Services for the Elderly to provide legal assistance for tenants facing eviction, Lord said.
Cook and another Bangor landlord, John Karnes, said they both have continuously notified their tenants about Maine’s rental relief program, and MaineHousing began running public service announcements alerting people to its existence.
“I encourage people who find themselves in a difficult situation not to wait to apply,” Lord said.