In this May 20, 2020, file photo, signs that read "No Job No Rent" hang from the windows of an apartment building during the coronavirus pandemic in Northwest Washington. The pandemic has shut housing courts and prompted authorities around the U.S. to initiate policies protecting renters from eviction. But not everyone is covered, and some landlords are turning to threats and harassment to force tenants out. Credit: Andrew Harnik | AP

PORTLAND, Maine — Landlords in Cumberland County have filed to evict 72 tenants since pandemic restrictions began in mid-March, but housing officials fear a catastrophic “tidal wave” of displacements in the near future if Congress doesn’t provide relief for troubled renters soon.

“We are very nervous about how this plays out,” said Greg Payne, executive director of the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition, a group of agencies and developers who work to secure affordable housing for Mainers.

Maine’s eviction courts are remotely hearing backlogged eviction cases through Sep. 4. Just a week after the courts resumed, it’s still too soon to know exactly how the threat of evictions will hit Maine renters struggling with the economic impact of the pandemic.

But housing officials like Payne say that the threat of an evictions crisis largely rests in the hands of Congress, which has stalled on renewing several lifelines that have kept those affected by the coronavirus in their homes, including a one-time stimulus payment of $1,200 issued in April.

Since the pandemic began, Congress also has enhanced federal unemployment benefits to those who qualify and enacted a moratorium on evictions for federally assisted housing units that have shielded nearly a third of renters statewide from eviction.

“I haven’t personally heard of a single case where somebody who was laid off because of COVID was getting kicked out of their apartment,” Brit Vitalius said, president of the Southern Maine Landlord Association.

But while those actions have temporarily helped to curb evictions, the safeguards have expired.

A July study from the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition, which works with low-income renters, determined “there is widespread concern that a wave of evictions could be just around the corner” as housing safeguards wane.

“I have no idea how long this is going to go on,” one respondent in the study said. “The extra unemployment helps but when that runs out, I’ll get maybe $200 a week, and basically all of that will go towards paying rent. There will be nothing left over for my other bills. It’s going to be pretty rough.”

The majority of Maine renters have not fallen behind on rent payments, according to the coalition’s study, though Payne said the assessment masks how thinly their funds have been stretched during the pandemic. The majority of the roughly 75 low-income tenant households included in the study said they were forced to skip other bills, take out loans and rely on food banks in order to pay rent.

On Monday, Payne said it was “incredibly urgent” for Congress to extend the moratorium and allocate funds to help renters in Maine and elsewhere.

Some additional help does seem to be on the way. On Monday, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development allocated $472 million to public housing authorities nationwide. More than $2.2 million of that would go to Maine, including more than $819,333 to housing authorities in Cumberland County.

Rental assistance has come to Mainers in a few forms since pandemic fallout began. Gov. Janet Mills created a $5 million rent-relief program in April, offering a direct payment of up to $500 paid directly to landlords for tenants meeting certain housing guidelines. On July 30, Mills extended that program for another three months, providing up to $1,000 per month for tenants within certain income-based eligibility requirements.

Vitalius was optimistic that Mills’ rent relief program extension would “keep tenants in place and keep housing stable for many Mainers.”

But those who most need that aid face additional burdens to secure it, say those who work with low-income tenants. Crystal Cron, whose volunteer-based organization Presente Maine has worked to ensure those in low-income and Latinx communities in Maine are housed and fed during the pandemic, says that many renters in low-income communities are burdened by excessive paperwork that requires signatures from landlords in order to secure benefits.

“Many of the people I’m in community with don’t even know who their landlord is,” Cron said. “I don’t know why poor people have to prove so hard that they’re poor.”

The 72 eviction filings in Cumberland County since the pandemic began in March are well below average. By comparison, 267 eviction cases were filed there between March 1 and July 31 in 2019. Many of the eviction filings in Cumberland County during the pandemic aren’t rent related, said Brit Vitalius of the Southern Maine Landlord Association, but instead, landlords are evicting tenants for poor behavior or property damage.

Still, President Donald Trump prioritized “stopping evictions” in legally contested executive actions issued over the weekend.

Some hope it will accelerate negotiations between Republicans and Democrats in Congress, but the executive director of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, Diane Yentel, called the president’s directive an “empty shell of a promise that does nothing to prevent evictions.”

Even Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, noted there are “constitutional limits on what the President can do to help through executive orders.”