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The federal government has dedicated more than $45 billion to pandemic rental relief. Maine’s share of that money is over $350 million.
Call us optimistic, but this level of public support — which one housing official in Maine accurately described as “wild” in terms of the money coming to the state — should prevent people from being evicted due to an inability to pay rent during the continued COVID-19 pandemic.
The news nationally about this funding, with the expiration of a federal moratorium on evictions as a backdrop, has been discouraging. As of the end of July, according to the U.S. Treasury Department, just over $5 billion of that money had been distributed by state and local programs.
Five billion dollars is a lot of money, but this means almost 90 percent of the federal Emergency Rental Assistance funds had yet to go to the vulnerable renters and unpaid landlords who need them. Even for a program that is designed to stretch aid out more than a year, this money is not getting out the door with enough urgency.
If there’s any encouraging news, it’s that the administration of Maine’s rental relief program has worked through initial challenges and has helped to avoid a wave of evictions here in the state. Maine is doing a better job distributing this rental relief than many other states, ranking 11th according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. The program is being administered by the Maine State Housing Authority, known as MaineHousing, with applications being processed through local community action agencies.
As of Sept. 1, according to MaineHousing Data, over 10,300 Maine households have received a total of nearly $57 million in rental relief. Almost 500 other households have been approved, but have yet to receive a total of nearly $1.5 million.
“We haven’t seen a crush of non-payment of rent,” Paul Cook, the founder of Maine Real Estate Management, which oversees 3,500 units across Maine, told the Bangor Daily News. “Rent relief has been such a godsend for people… I think it was probably the difference for a lot of people between having a place to live and not having a place to live.”
According to Cook, most tenant disputes have been for reasons other than non-payment, like tenant behavior. Denise Lord, MaineHousing’s senior director for planning and communications, told the BDN that the organization is hearing about more filings for no-cause evictions, such as when a building is sold and tenants are asked to leave so that the new owners can renovate and charge more.
So despite some encouraging state-specific rental relief news, people are still facing hard realities. As of the beginning of August, according to the National Equity Atlas, there were approximately 17,000 Maine households behind on rent. Maine landlords were owed a total of more than $42 million. And as of this month, there is still almost $300 million in rental relief left available in the state, which is designed to help both renters and landlords during the economic upheaval created by the pandemic.
Above all, this means anyone having trouble paying their rent or facing eviction, or a landlord who is owed back rent, should be looking into this relief and seeing if they or their tenants qualify. MaineHousing has also contracted with Pine Tree Legal and Legal Services for the Elderly to offer legal help for people facing eviction.
As outlined by MaineHousing, tenants applying for rental relief through the ERA program must meet certain household income limits, have had someone in their household experience financial difficulty during the pandemic, and have trouble paying their rent or utilities.
“We’re continuing to build it out, so our goals are to increase the number of households that we can serve, to reduce our processing time, and just make sure that anyone who is able to be helped gets helped,” Lord told the editorial board.
There are people working every day to make sure other people can stay in their homes during a pandemic, and that is admirable and important work which must continue. MaineHousing and its community partners should continue to do everything they can to move along the applications still in process, which were 3,463 as of Sept. 1.
Maine might be 11th in the country in terms of getting this aid out, but this isn’t quite a “mission accomplished” moment. Doing better than most, when most aren’t doing very well, isn’t cause for total celebration. Maine must build on the positive momentum to keep getting this assistance out in a timely manner, and to ensure that the people who need and qualify for rental relief know it is available.