Maine's housing authority has spent through almost three quarters of rent relief funds it received from two congressional COVID relief packages. It's stopped accepting new applications for the $350 million program as a result. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Maine distributed emergency rent relief from two congressional funding packages so quickly that it had to stop accepting new applications for the program last week.

That’s a 180-degree turn from a year ago, when the Maine State Housing Authority thought it had been awarded more federal rent relief funding than it would be able to use to help tenants who lost work or money during the pandemic.

MaineHousing has handed out some $259.4 million to over 30,000 renter households since the program began in March 2021, according to a Sept. 21 data report. That’s around 74 percent of the $350 million Maine received for rent relief under two congressional COVID relief packages.

But rising rents and hotel room rates, as well as a surge in people seeking help from the program in advance of colder weather, have since forced MaineHousing to scale back the program and stop accepting new applicants to prolong the life of the funds that remain.

MaineHousing announced last week that it would temporarily halt applications for its emergency rental assistance program. The agency had already tightened eligibility rules in June that restricted who could receive rent relief to those making 50 percent of the area median income, and narrowed the length of time they could receive that aid from 18 months to 12.

Several other states, including New York, Texas and Oregon, have ended or paused taking new applicants for their emergency rental assistance relief programs.

Factors like increasing rents and rising seasonal hotel room rates forced MaineHousing to tighten its rules to preserve the remaining aid for the neediest people, said spokesperson Scott Thistle.

Initially, the housing agency thought that simply restricting eligibility would help preserve that money for longer.

But as tenants have reported facing higher rents in recent months, the rate at which MaineHousing was spending that money accelerated, Thistle said.

And as the weather turned colder, more people in need of shelter flocked to the program.

One Bangor couple, Jody and Cherie Mackin, lived in an encampment behind the Hope House until Monday, when Jody said he had received enough rent relief aid from Penquis, which doles out rent relief in Penobscot and Piscataquis counties, to move into a room at an inn in Brewer. They plan to stay there until they can find a permanent apartment.  

The influx of new applicants, along with rent increases, “undermined our efforts to slow the program down,” Thistle said. “Simple math would tell you that if we don’t have money coming into a program, we can’t have money going out of the program.”

Some 12,000 Mainers, mostly low-income households, owed $15.6 million in outstanding rent as of Aug. 8, according to data from the National Equity Atlas, which tracks rent debt across the U.S.

Until it can accept new applications, MaineHousing is referring renters in need to organizations like Legal Services For the Elderly and Pine Tree Legal Assistance.

Maddie Thomson Crossman, an attorney for the latter organization, said she expected more eviction cases as relief ran out for tenants and rent increases took effect.

“Landlords have been raising the rent as fast as they’re able to,” Thomson Crossman said. “A lot of people were depending on this program, and were anticipating being able to access it.”

But there is some hope the state housing authority may be able to reopen applications in the future. The agency is waiting to hear whether the U.S. Treasury will grant it another round of federal aid, which may prolong the program, Thistle said.

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Lia Russell

Lia Russell is a reporter on the city desk for the Bangor Daily News. Send tips to LRussell@bangordailynews.com.