Sisters Brenda Page (left) and Judy Greenleaf are facing eviction due to the loss of income because of COVID-19. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik | BDN

Pine Tree Legal, a group that defends low-income tenants statewide, has recruited 10 volunteer lawyers to help renters navigate the evictions process in a “chaotic” court system turned upside down by the pandemic. As eviction cases rise across the state, the nonprofit aims to double its number of legal volunteers in the coming weeks to help avert a crisis of Mainers displaced from their homes.

“The stakes feel higher for our clients,” said Katy Childs, a lawyer with Pine Tree Legal. “Tenants are facing the possibility that they may have to leave their home with their family and everything that that entails.”

Pine Tree Legal is unable to keep up with demand in normal times. About 5,300 eviction cases were filed in Maine last year, and Pine Tree Legal worked on about 18 percent of them. Navigating changes to the court system during the pandemic has spread them thin, making it more difficult to aid tenants in new eviction cases. The bulk of eviction cases filed in August are for nonpayment of rent, a clear shift from those filed between mid-March and July, which mostly cited behavioral or property damage issues.

Eviction proceedings paused in mid-March when the pandemic hit, allowing those struggling financially to shelter in place at their homes through much of the summer. But since courts resumed earlier this month — mostly remotely — it’s been a tenuous start as renters and others grapple with the new judicial processes that have been altered by the pandemic.

Clients who face eviction typically meet their lawyers in the courtroom the morning of their hearing, but that’s rarely an option now. Neutral mediators also are typically available at courthouses to help tenants and landlords reach a settlement without intervention from a judge.

But after months of being unable to collect rent from some tenants, more landlords are eager to skip mediation and pursue evictions right now, according to lawyers.

While the more than $2 trillion federal CARES Act provided a stimulus and protected low-income tenants and homeowners who relied on federal housing subsidies from being evicted during the pandemic, those safeguards expired at the end of July.

The dam will break without another wave of relief at the federal level, said Greg Payne, director of the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition, a group of agencies and developers who work to secure affordable housing for Mainers.

“If a robust rental assistance resource emerges and eviction protections go back into place, maybe it won’t end up being so scary,” Payne said.

Until then, there’s a great need to help vulnerable tenants navigate the eviction process and stay housed.

“The biggest need is for attorneys who can help with litigation,” said Helen Meyer, a development director with Pine Tree Legal.

Mainers have received a few forms of rental assistance since the 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.

The City of Portland streamlined its application process on Wednesday, making an additional $250 per month available for renters struggling with utility bills.