Sisters Brenda Page and Judy Greenleaf faced eviction this summer due to the loss of income because of COVID-19. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

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Adam Cohen is a second-year student and Economic Justice Fellow at the University of Maine School of Law.

While the safety, quality, affordability, and location of our housing has long been understood as one of the strongest predictors of individual and family outcomes, policymakers across the country have only recently begun paying due attention to evictions as both a cause and consequence of poverty. Following an eviction judgment, a person’s likelihood of experiencing homelessness increases, mental and physical health decline and the probability of obtaining employment, credit and a new place to live are severely diminished for years to come.

Yet an average of about 5,500 eviction cases are filed in Maine every year.

As an Economic Justice Fellow with the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition (MAHC), I worked with a small group of students from across the University of Maine System to visit courthouses across six counties and collect data from more than 2,000 eviction cases filed last year. Data from January to March offered insights into the prevalence, causes, and outcomes of eviction filings during “normal” (pre-pandemic) times, while data from subsequent months allowed MAHC to track the impact of the pandemic on Maine renters and the effects of temporary state and federal eviction protections.

A close examination of MAHC’s eviction report in September 2020 followed by an updated analysis in February 2021 reveals three significant findings — each of which offer insight into how policymakers can reduce the number of evictions in Maine:

First, most eviction cases filed prior to the pandemic were for nonpayment of rent and claimed a relatively small amount of arrearages. Pre-pandemic, 73 percent of eviction filings were filed for nonpayment of rent. Nearly three-quarters of these filings alleged the tenant was two months or less behind in rent payments. Given the widespread availability of rent relief in Maine and the opportunity to structure payment plans, many of these claims should be resolvable without leading to housing displacement.

Second, the playing field between landlords and tenants is severely uneven when it comes to legal representation in eviction court. Both pre-pandemic and throughout the pandemic period, landlords had legal representation in about 80 percent of eviction cases while only about 20 percent of tenants did. When tenants did have an attorney, they were 85 percent more likely to avoid an eviction judgment than those who lacked representation. Notably, the presence of a tenant attorney did not mean significantly more cases being adjudicated in favor of the tenant. Rather, it led to more cases being negotiated in search of mutually acceptable outcomes, which often led to the eviction filing being dismissed.

Third, amended court procedures, with a pre-hearing status conference and the availability of mediation, likely increase opportunities for landlord-tenant negotiations. Prior to the pandemic, 26 percent of eviction filings were dismissed, allowing the tenant to avoid an eviction judgment. During the pandemic period, this number rose to 40 percent. Among several possible explanations for this shift, two changes in court procedure — the initiation of a pre-hearing telephone status conference and an increase in the percentage of cases referred to the court’s mediation program — likely played a significant role. By bringing the parties into a conversation before the hearing, there was more opportunity to negotiate a mutually acceptable resolution.

A bipartisan group of state lawmakers, led by Sen. Anne Carney, recently introduced a proposal that would reduce the number of renter households in Maine that face the devastation of an eviction judgment. LD 1508 has three main components, each of which are supported by the data we collected. First, it would require that plain-meaning information be provided to tenants facing eviction, to inform them of opportunities to secure an attorney, apply for rental assistance, and actively participate in the eviction proceeding. Second, the bill provides additional funding for legal representation of tenants in eviction court. Finally, it would make permanent the now-temporary practice of holding a status conference during the week prior to an eviction hearing and makes mediation more widely available. These reforms would create the opportunity for mutually beneficial dispute resolution without significantly extending the timeline of a typical eviction proceeding.

By improving the state’s eviction process, the passage of LD 1508 would be a critical step forward in making post-pandemic Maine a more equitable and prosperous place to call home.