The BDN is making the most crucial coverage of the coronavirus pandemic and its economic impact in Maine free for all readers. Click here for all coronavirus stories. You can join others committed to safeguarding this vital public service by purchasing a subscription or donating directly to the newsroom.
Organizations that work with low-income renters are gearing up for a rash of eviction filings as Maine courts begin dealing with cases next month for the first time since mid-March, a moratorium from federally funded housing programs expires and the weekly $600 boost to unemployment benefits ends.
But the wave of eviction filings might not materialize immediately, as attorneys for landlords say they don’t have clients eager to kick tenants out of their buildings for unpaid rent. And courts are likely to deal with the oldest cases — those that were pending before the pandemic shut courts down — first.
In addition, federal rent relief funds that have not yet been distributed may help renters make payments over the next couple of months, according to the Maine State Housing Authority, as high unemployment likely persists and the specter of another wave of coronavirus infections remains.
Concerns about the large number of Maine residents who may face eviction are driven by recent estimates based on U.S. Census survey data that 29,000 Maine households were unable to pay last month’s rent and that 43,000 are at risk of eviction, owing $47 million in rent.
About 155,000 households, or 28 percent of all households in Maine, rent rather than own their dwellings.
And many aren’t confident they’ll be able to keep paying rent.
The Maine Affordable Housing Coalition in June surveyed 31 renter households with workers who typically earned between $12 and $20 per hour before the coronavirus-related economic shutdown. About 74 percent lost income because of reduced hours or job loss due to the pandemic, according to Greg Payne, the coalition’s director.
Despite the widespread income loss, all but one of the 31 households were eventually able to pay rent from April through June, often by cobbling the money together from stimulus checks or tax refunds, savings accounts, unemployment benefits, rental support payments and loans or gifts from friends and family, according to the survey.
Forty-two percent of people interviewed skipped paying other bills to make rent payments and nearly half turned to food pantries to save money on groceries, Payne said.
“Housing is my prime source of stress,” one survey respondent said.
That stress apparently has increased as the courts prepare to hear eviction cases again next month and the moratorium on evictions imposed on federally funded housing programs expires on Saturday.
The courts reduced the hours they were open to the public and limited the kinds of cases judges would hear on March 16. Between that date and June 26, 110 eviction cases were filed in courts around the state — though not all for nonpayment of rent. In mid-March, 405 pending cases were continued indefinitely, according to data provided by the Administrative Office of the Courts in Portland.
By comparison, 1,586 eviction cases were filed last year in March, April, May and June. In the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2019, 5,376 eviction cases were filed in Maine’s 29 district courts. That was 449 fewer filings than the previous year.
It’s unknown how many of those cases resulted in evictions.
Before the pandemic, hearings on evictions were scheduled in Portland, Lewiston, Augusta and Bangor several days a month and less frequently in areas with fewer rental units. Landlords with their attorneys would appear along with tenants and their lawyers. Tenants without attorneys would be able to speak with lawyers from Pine Tree Legal Assistance, Legal Services for the Elderly and other groups offering free legal advice to low-income renters.
Judges would go through a list of 20 to 50 cases, asking which renters and landlords had reached agreements and who needed to have hearings to resolve issues. Deals were often brokered in conference rooms and hallways. Or, judges conducted hearings with multiple witnesses and evidence and issued rulings.
COVID-19 upended that process.
Until this month, all hearings happened remotely and only emergency hearings on evictions that alleged severe behavioral issues by tenants were held. Courts still are limiting the number of people who can be in a courtroom and on certain floors, and requiring everyone who enters to wear a mask and adhere to social distancing standards.
The court system announced Tuesday that telephone status conferences, instead of in-person initial appearances, will be scheduled so judges can find out if parties have reached agreements, need to proceed to mediation or need to have in-person hearings scheduled.
The courts also are preparing an information sheet that would tell people how to contact organizations for legal help with the eviction process since they will not be able to meet with lawyers at courthouses.
Pine Tree Legal Assistance, which offers free legal aid to low-income Mainers, is training volunteer lawyers to help out with what the organization expects will be an increased demand for services next month and in September.
“We want to make sure every potential client gets help,” said Erica Veazey, who handles eviction cases out of Pine Tree’s Bangor office. “We are preparing for an all-hands-on-deck situation.”
But that demand for help might come more gradually.
Joe Bethony, counsel for federally funded housing projects in Bangor, Brewer and Old Town, said that he won’t begin considering whether to initiate eviction proceedings against tenants for failure to pay rent until after Aug. 8, when rent would be considered late. Thirty-day notices would be sent to tenants before anything would be filed in court in September.
“The number of issued notices that are ultimately filed with the court in September will depend on the number of families who bring their rent current after the notice issues and the number of families with whom we enter into a repayment agreement,” he said.
Bethony urged tenants behind in their rent due to the pandemic to talk with property managers.
“We understand that times have been tough and we’re willing to work with families on repayment agreements so they don’t lose their housing,” Bethony said.
Portland lawyer David Chamberlain, who represents landlords throughout the state, said that his clients’ accounts receivable “aren’t that bad.” Chamberlain has just one client seeking to evict tenants for not paying rent.
“I don’t see a huge wave of evictions coming,” he said.
Ed Gould, a Bangor lawyer, said Tuesday that he has half a dozen cases ready to file for landlords but none for nonpayment of rent.
“They’re all for behavioral issues that didn’t rise to the level of seeking an emergency hearing,” he said. “Some landlords held off filing until they knew the courts would be hearing cases again, but others wanted cases filed knowing that they’d be closer to the front of the line.”
So far, courts are first scheduling hearings that were set for March and continued. Notices that went out in May, June and July said that the tenants’ court dates were to be determined. Exactly how often the courts will be scheduling cases to clear up the backlog has not been announced.
One thing that may give renters some breathing room is the $2.2 million Maine received in federal money to help with up to three months of rent relief. The state is waiting on a waiver from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that would allow the Maine State Housing Authority, rather than the Department of Economic and Community Development, to distribute it, according Cara Courchesne, spokesperson for the housing authority.
As for other sources of rental help, Gov. Janet Mills in April created a $5 million rent relief program for working Mainers struggling to pay rent. It offered a one-time payment of up to $500, to be paid directly to landlords, for tenants meeting certain income guidelines but did not include people living in federally subsidized housing.
About 13,000 Mainers have accessed those funds so far.
And the governor’s Economic Recovery Committee also recommended $50 million of a $1.1 billion aid package be earmarked for housing. Mills has not taken steps yet to implement all of those recommendations.
If the economic recovery remains sluggish in Maine and evictions increase, an increase in homelessness is possible this winter, according to Boyd Kronholm, the executive director of the Bangor Area Homeless Shelter. No organization in Maine gathers statistics about how many people become homeless due to eviction.
“A good number of people who come through our door have experienced an eviction,” Kronholm said. “Some have been through more than one.”
Due to social distancing requirements, he said, Bangor’s three shelters have a total of between 50 and 60 people staying each night. Another 30 are staying in area hotels and about 40, Kronholm estimated, are unsheltered.
“We are gearing up to serve more people after eviction cases start moving through the courts again,” he said. “I expect to see a tidal wave of people seeking our services.”