COVID-19 has presented an extraordinary test for housing providers. Maine’s network of 21 Public Housing Authorities (PHAs) have risen to the challenge. Last week, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) HUD announced $4,313,520 in Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding for Maine PHAs. The act recognizes the virus’s financial toll on individuals and families, as well as on safety net providers such as public housing authorities (PHAs). Funding will support housing authority programs to mitigate COVID-19’s impact.
Urban Institute notes that “In many ways, the COVID-19 crisis has exposed what we already knew: public housing is home to many vulnerable seniors requiring significant support. But the public health crisis exacerbates risks to people living in public and assisted housing and introduces new ones.” As essential businesses during this time, Maine PHAs have demonstrated their ability to mobilize quickly, leverage resources, and expand community partnerships.
Amanda Bartlett, executive director of Augusta Housing, says, “We are so proud that, in these unprecedented times, we have not only been able to continue all essential functions with no disruptions or negative impacts to those we serve but have also been able to provide education and resources such as food and masks to our most vulnerable tenants”.
Enhanced communication with residents has been a hallmark of many housing authorities during this time. Waterville and Lewiston Housing have implemented wellness calling trees. Lewiston HA Director Chris Kilmurry says, “We have been calling every household just to check in and see how they are doing, regardless of their situation, on a constant rotation. As soon as we complete the list of tenants, we start over.” Sanford Housing has formed a partnership with the local rotary for wellness calls and letters to residents.
PHAs have both leveraged existing partnerships with service providers to ensure they continue to meet older residents’ needs and expanded partnerships. Bath, Brewer, Brunswick, Augusta and Bangor have worked with community partners to deliver food and meals to residents. Bath Housing has a new partner. Cooking for Community delivers weekly meals prepared by Maine restaurants to residents. This effort has created a ripple effect by supporting restaurants, local supply chains, and people in need . . . all at the same time.
Finally, Maine PHAs have been able to take advantage of federal waivers that provide greater flexibility resulting in the ability to get people housed more quickly and to keep existing renters in their homes. Diane Gerry, executive director of Sanford Housing, shares that they have been working closely with area landlords to understand the new flexibilities and waivers during this time. This includes waivers related to the processing of “interim” income adjustments for families that have lost income due to COVID-19. The result is faster turnaround in rent adjustments, with landlords still getting paid in full. In February 2020 alone, Maine PHAs sent $7,400,000 to landlords throughout the state, and it is expected that by June 2020, that number will increase by 10 percent.
While these are challenging times, Maine PHAs have demonstrated their ability to think creatively, work collaboratively, and expand capacity to serve Maine communities and families. The 21 Public Housing Authorities in Maine own and operate hundreds of public housing and other subsidized apartments and administer Housing Choice Voucher and other rental assistance programs in Maine that pay rent to landlords on behalf of tenants. Maine Association of Public Housing Directors is a non-profit organization that works with the Executive Directors of Maine’s local housing authorities.
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