In this file photo, Sisters Brenda Page (left) and Judy Greenleaf were facing eviction in July due to the loss of income because of COVID-19. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

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Enough Maine people tried to apply for a new emergency rental assistance program that the online application system temporarily crashed on Monday. So if you’re a renter in Maine and you need help paying for your housing or utilities right now, you’re not alone. And as of this week, you may qualify for this significant new round of assistance.

The $200 million program, funded by the federal COVID-19 relief package passed back in December and administered by the Maine State Housing Authority, will help eligible renters pay rent and some utility bills retroactive to March 13, 2020. The program can cover up to 15 months of someone’s rent.

In order to be eligible, tenants applying for this program must meet certain income limits based on their household size and where they live in the state. They must also have had their income reduced, experienced significant costs or faced other financial hardships due to COVID-19, or qualified for unemployment between last March and the time of their application. In addition, applicants must demonstrate that they are at risk of becoming homeless or losing their housing. Ways to prove that include being behind on rent or utilities, having to borrow money for housing costs, and being threatened with eviction.

Applications for the program, which are being processed by community action agencies across the state, opened Monday, March 1. Demand was high enough that the online system temporarily crashed on its first day, demonstrating the high need for this assistance. MaineHousing Director Dan Brennan told the BDN editorial board that the problem has been corrected, servers have been sized up, and the system is now working.

Brennan didn’t yet have information on the number of applications received so far, but said MaineHousing is developing a weekly dashboard for its website to keep the public updated on the program. He said the level of early interest in this aid reflects the high demand and awareness of its rollout.

“It’s a good sign that the awareness is out there that help has arrived,” Brennan said. “It is a very stressful situation for too many people. COVID has impacted every one of us, but it’s impacted some of us more than others: People who have been laid off, people who have had hours cut, thousands of people affected, thousands of households affected. It’s just added an incredible layer of stress to those folks’ lives and being able to make their rental payments. And the landlords that own these buildings need that rent to keep their business going and keep providing the housing.”

MaineHousing had been providing rental assistance on a smaller scale in 2020. That program ended in December. Though Congress paved the way for this $200 million by passing another round of COVID-19 relief that same month, it took some time for the money to actually flow to states and even longer for final program guidance from the U.S. Treasury Department with a change in administrations. That final guidance arrived last Monday and the new program was open within a week. Maine certainly was not alone in waiting for that federal clarity.

As members of Congress look to avoid other looming federal aid deadlines, we hope they’ll remember that passing more funding or just barely meeting a deadline doesn’t always mean immediate relief for their constituents.

The wait since December for more rental assistance has been understandably frustrating for Maine people in need. While a federal moratorium on evictions remains in place through the end of March, landlords have still been able to file eviction cases in Maine courts.

“I think that folks have just been continuing to do all they can to hang on,” Maine Affordable Housing Coalition Director Greg Payne told Maine Public last week.

The folks who have been hanging on should not hesitate to reach out for help now that it is available. As Brennan added, there can be an unfortunate (and unhealthy) stigma associated with accepting government assistance. There shouldn’t be.

“Our goal is to make sure that there’s an awareness that it’s here, and that there shouldn’t be a stigma about reaching out and asking for help,” Brennan said “We’re in a pandemic, none of us have experienced this level of crisis that the world has been going through in the last year … So people should not be ashamed, and I encourage anyone who is having issues playing their rent or utilities, this has a utility component to it as well, I would encourage them to reach out and seek assistance.”

We encourage the same. MaineHousing has stressed that the easiest and most efficient way to apply for the emergency rental assistance program is through its online application process. But people can also call their toll-free line at 1-800-452-4668 and receive a paper application. Brennan indicated the process can take two to three weeks or more for applications to be processed and paid, so we also encourage people to apply sooner rather than later.

The Bangor Daily News editorial board members are Publisher Richard J. Warren, Opinion Editor Susan Young, Deputy Opinion Editor Matt Junker and BDN President Todd Benoit. Young has worked for the BDN...