Portland City Councilor Spencer Thibodeau speaks at a meeting in late 2019. He is calling for state action that would pause rent and mortgage payments for 60 days due to the coronavirus.

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PORTLAND, Maine — After many business owners called upon the city to issue a rent freeze earlier this week, saying their landlords expected April rent, city officials have said they are hamstrung by state law while expecting Gov. Janet Mills to take statewide action.

Some Portland councilors anticipate statewide rent relief is coming after the Democratic governor teased this week she was preparing an order on residential and commercial rents. It comes as Maine and most other states have put the economy into a managed fall due to the coronavirus, issuing stay-at-home orders that have led to record unemployment filings.

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Councilor Spencer Thibodeau, who served on the governor’s transition team after she won the 2018 election, is calling for a 60-day “pause at the state level” on rent and mortgage payments.

“If we’re going to pause going to work, we’ve got to make sure we’re pausing the biggest expense that most of us have, and that’s our housing,” Thibodeau said.

Portland city councilors have discussed paths forward — including a citywide rent freeze — but feel that their municipal powers are constrained by state law on evictions. The city would also be effectively regulating banks that operate across city lines under state and federal regulations.

Those factors make city-level action “extremely difficult,” Thibodeau said. Councilor Kim Cook said the question of freezing rents and mortgages “is typically beyond the scope of Portland.”

“My preference would be to see what the governor is doing, since she said she’s working on something,” she said.

Mills said Tuesday that she was considering an order that would ban evictions of residential and commercial tenants during the coronavirus pandemic. Eviction courts closed in mid-March, meaning no new evictions will move forward for now, but she said on Friday her order could address pending cases and create “a small program” providing rent assistance to people affected by the virus.

The Portland City Council passed an amendment last week requesting landlords suspend evictions and rent increases for 60 days while courts were closed, advising tenants and landlords to communicate about rent payments like business negotiations.

Thibodeau, who proposed the amendment, acknowledged its limitations. He said he “couldn’t find a way to require” language prohibiting landlords from exploiting loopholes like absorbing the city’s $500 penalty for violating the proclamation prohibiting evictions and finding new tenants.

“If a property owner thinks that they’re just going to find someone who’s going to pay the rent within a couple months here, what I want them to do is to sit down at the table and say why don’t we take half the security deposit,” Thibodeau said. “Put that to this month’s rent. Then we move ourselves to May.”

Acknowledging that April 1 was “painful” for tenants, Thibodeau said May 1 “is going to be really hard for people.” In March, Mayor Kate Snyder said the city was getting lots of calls from “renters feeling that they’re not going to be able to make the rent, and landlords knowing they’ve got a mortgage payment due.”

Some property owners can apply for mortgage forbearance as part of the stimulus bill passed by Congress last month. The same law barred evictions from buildings secured by federally backed mortgages for up to 120 days, but it did not include a similar forbearance programs for tenants.

Last week, Snyder said she wondered how the city can “ensure that landlords are taking care of both federal and state programs so that they can pass that relief down to tenants.” Otherwise, city councilors fear that existing protections against evictions aren’t strong enough, and that “the writing is on the wall” for mass closures and evacuations.

“Whenever this becomes a new normal — it’s never going back to normal — but whenever it becomes a new normal, people are going to see some ‘closed’ signs on businesses that would have otherwise been there,” Thibodeau said.

“Unless we take action, I don’t know how we survive.”

Watch: Janet Mills speaks to people who think they’re not at risk

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