Grier p Miskell (left) and Peace Mutesi of the Quality Housing Coalition sit in their Portland office surrounded by maps of the communities they serve on Thursday, Nov. 9, 2023. Burgoon Miskell is housing navigation coordinator and Mutesi is Project HOME's trust coordinator. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Maine housing agencies are incentivizing landlords to provide homes to vulnerable tenants, a strategy that is working but remains difficult to scale up due to a shortage of overall units.

Groups from Caribou to South Portland are offering local landlords financial guarantees and logistical support if they offer units to Maine families experiencing housing instability and homelessness. Two groups using this strategy, Portland’s Quality Housing Coalition and the Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter of Waterville, have found permanent homes for just under 200 families – many of whom have experienced chronic homelessness – this year alone.

Project Home, the Portland group’s flagship program, has an applicant pool of over 2,000 families waiting to be matched with a unit right now. That underscores the short supply of housing statewide that is driving up costs and limiting how far they can reach, although policymakers largely see them as successes to date.

“Given that we’re in the middle of a shortage, and we will be for a while, probably, I think this is probably one of the best tools we have,” Erik Jorgensen, director of government relations at MaineHousing, the state’s housing authority, said.

Waterville’s landlord incentive program took Rick Mitchell out of homelessness quicker than he fell into it.

The 47-year-old has lived in the south end of Waterville all his life. Mitchell worked for a construction company but got a slew of injuries including arthritis, pinched nerves and gangrene that made continuing to work impossible. A few years ago, he began living on disability checks capped at what he was making before the minimum wage was raised in Maine. That was also before housing prices exploded during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mitchell and his wife were evicted from their apartment earlier this year because their landlord wanted to remodel the building, he said. They were given 45 days to find an apartment they could pay for on a fixed income, close to the center of town because they do not have transportation and on the first floor to accommodate Mitchell’s mobility issues.

They couldn’t find anything within budget in Waterville, so they began living in the back of a U-Haul truck. After four days, even the rent for that got too expensive.

Then, a friend of the couple told them about a landlord, Eric Hall, who had housed some people from the local homeless shelter. Through Hall, Mitchell was connected to Yedda Smith, who has run Waterville’s rapid rehousing program since it launched in March.

“Snap of her fingers, she got me into a place,” Mitchell said. “I couldn’t believe it.”

In the six months since housing Mitchell, he said Smith has been an “angel,” handling all communications between him and his landlord to make sure things go smoothly.

To ensure Mitchell can afford the apartment, Smith helps him budget and drives him to appointments or to the food bank, Mitchell said. The program also offers the landlord a financial guarantee that the program will be on the hook for any property damage or late payments. She helps both parties navigate the state’s voucher program.

“If the landlord has an issue with the tenant, like a noise complaint or something, we’re able to go in and just express that,” Smith said.

Smith has housed 24 families including Mitchell’s since the program launched in March. She has made connections with around 10 landlords in Kennebec and Somerset counties and hopes to find homes for eight more families this year.

From Portland, Project Home has developed a network of around 40 landlords across York, Cumberland, Oxford, Androscoggin, Sagadahoc, and Kennebec counties. These landlords have helped house more than 1,500 people since the program’s launch in 2018, Lucas Schrage, the program’s manager.

That’s no small feat at a time when the median rent is $2,500 in Portland, according to Zillow, yet census data shows that nearly 13 percent of the population lives in poverty.

“Housing is a finite resource, and landlords are the pathway to accessing that resource,” Schrage said.

Stigma often holds landlords back from renting to formerly homeless tenants, he said. But Brit Vitalius, a Portland-based landlord who leads the Southern Maine Landlord Association, pointed out that such people might be a material challenge for landlords.

For example, they may not have an extensive rental history or a credit score, he noted. Asylum seekers may have language or cultural barriers that make it difficult to communicate needs and navigate state or federal programs.

With a mediating agency that vouches for a tenant personally and financially, and promises to help landlords cover their expenses, property managers are coming around to the idea. It often begins with a test of a unit or two to demonstrate if the sides can make it work.

Vitalius, a founding member of the housing coalition, rents out around 30 units in Portland. Four of his tenants came through Project Home. He now plans to offer up most new units he purchases in downtown Portland to the program’s tenants going forward.

“It’s a real win-win. It’s almost effortless,” Vitalius said. “If something happens, I have a question, a payment is late, it’s taken care of.”

Zara Norman joined the Bangor Daily News in 2023 after a year reporting for the Morning Sentinel. She lives in Waterville and graduated from Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, in 2022.