Gov. Janet Mills announces that one person has tested positive for coronavirus in Maine, during a news conference at the State House, Thursday, March 12, 2020, in Augusta, Maine. Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, is at right. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty | AP

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Gov. Janet Mills paused some evictions of residential and commercial tenants in an executive order on Thursday and created a $5 million rent relief program, offering some reprieve to those struggling to pay rent during the economic slowdown caused by the coronavirus outbreak.

The Democratic governor’s announcement falls in line with comments she made last week that she would take a “targeted approach” to prevent evictions during the civil state of emergency. The order applies strictly to cases of evictions caused by the pandemic, such as business shutdowns or layoffs of residential tenants.

[Our COVID-19 tracker contains the most recent information on Maine cases by county]

The move was generally praised by advocates and officials, though some have asked for more sweeping measures. Mills told reporters on Thursday that the program was a “public health measure”and “not a public subsidy.” One housing lawyer called it a step that will enable more to follow the governor’s directive to adhere to social distancing to stop the spread of the virus.

“Most landlords are trying to do the right thing during these challenging times but we have seen an increase in calls from tenants all over the state who have been illegally evicted or threatened with illegal eviction,” said Katherine McGovern, a lawyer with Pine Tree Legal Assistance.

Mills’ order requires landlords to give “at will” tenants — those without a legal agreement with their landlords — up to 60 days notice of eviction rather than 30 days. It also extends the time frame during which the eviction takes place if eviction courts reopen before Maine’s civil state of emergency ends. Most cases cannot move forward now with courts closed.

It prevents evictions that have not been issued by a court from going forward, while the order also provides stronger penalties for landlords who try to evict tenants before going through court. Tenants who engage in dangerous or unlawful conduct are not protected under the order.

Business shutdowns and layoffs have become increasingly prevalent in Maine and most of the nation. Most recently, Mills ordered residents to stay at home until the end of April and closed the public-facing sides of most businesses. She extended a civil state of emergency declaration for another month earlier this week.

Mills on Thursday also created a rental relief program with MaineHousing for Mainers who are struggling to pay rent. It offers a one-time payment of up to $500 in rental assistance for those who meet certain income thresholds.

Funding for the $5 million rent relief program would be available to households that meet certain income and eligibility requirements. The money comes from real estate transfer taxes that flow into another Maine State Housing Authority fund. The aid would be paid directly to landlords.

“It won’t go a long way, but it will provide some measure of relief for some families now,” she said.

Mills has encouraged landlords to be flexible and work with tenants rather than evict them. Her order on Thursday was accompanied by a letter to trade groups for banks and credit unions urging them to not foreclose on residential and commercial properties.

Chris Pinkham, the CEO of the Maine Bankers Association, said “forbearance is there” for most mortgage holders at his member institutions, ranging from not requiring some monthly payments to paying interest only or refinancing. He said the intent of banks is “not to put people in a position where they can’t pay.”

Advocacy groups have called for more sweeping measures than what Mills unveiled on Thursday. The progressive Maine Small Business Coalition called for an executive order banning evictions and forgiving rents and mortgages during the pandemic in late March.

Aaron Berger, who sits on a recently assembled non-legislative body of tenants and landlords working toward housing solutions in Portland, said he wished that $5 million had been made available to support frontline workers, many of whom are tenants themselves.

“If evictions are suspended, why are we paying landlords to hold off on evictions?” Berger said.

Businesses in Maine’s largest city called for a rent freeze earlier this month, saying some landlords would not cooperate. Portland officials have argued that they need state guidance before taking action. Councilor Spencer Thibodeau said Mills’ order “strikes to the heart of the issue.”

BDN writer Michael Shepherd contributed to this report.

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