The popular restaurant Portland Hunt + Alpine Club has been in a hard shutdown since March 15, so it’s not surprising that the owners, Briana and Andrew Volk, were nervous as their April 1 rent payment approached. They were grateful when the building’s owner, East Brown Cow Management, agreed to defer April’s rent and see how the restaurant did applying for coronavirus pandemic relief loans.

“They have been very understanding,” Briana Volk said on Tuesday. “We don’t expect not to pay rent. But they know we’re trying to figure it out.”

Across Maine, small, independent business owners are in anxious talks with landlords as they seek to buy time until they can reopen and restore cash flow.

But some businesses say more help is needed. Now.

In Portland, 20 small-business owners sent a letter over the weekend to the mayor and city council, asking them to pass a small business rent freeze and bar evictions for at least two months. They cited similar measures taken in California cities.

Portland Mayor Kate Snyder said Maine state law prohibits municipalities from taking such a step, but she was unable to cite the specific statute. Attempts to clarify the legality of such a ban with the Maine Municipal Association and the Maine Attorney General’s Office were unsuccessful Tuesday.

In a recent emergency order, the city requested that landlords temporarily suspend any terminations for tenants who can show their inability to pay is related to the coronavirus outbreak. But it’s only a strong request, Snyder said, not a legal order.

Snyder said many landlords also have mortgages and bills they need to pay, so she’s encouraging both owners and tenants to communicate with each other.

“We hope landlords will work with people,” she said. “But we can’t tell them it’s a requirement of the City Council.”

Also on Tuesday, the Maine People’s Alliance sent a petition to Gov. Janet Mills containing 1,800 messages from Mainers across the state asking her to take executive action to place a moratorium on all residential and commercial evictions and foreclosures, with rent forgiveness, until 90 days after the public health emergency is over.

The petition also calls for rents and mortgages to be forgiven during the period of the moratorium, and the establishment of a program for property owners to seek financial assistance from the government for lost revenue from rental payments during the period of the moratorium.

The concept of a statewide ban on closures and evictions, as well as a rent freeze, is the big topic of discussion at the 4,000-member Maine Small Business Coalition. Recently, the group formed a coronavirus response element that has been meeting online.

“This is unprecedented and it’s impacting a huge swath of business owners,” said Adam Zuckerman, the group’s director. “If we rely on landlords to do the right thing, there are going to be winners and losers, but mostly losers.”

Many small business are applying for forgivable loans with the new federal Paycheck Protection Program. But while those loans will be helpful for business owners to pay their workers, they are of limited value for rent. The law requires 75 percent of the loan to go toward payroll, with 25 percent allowed for rent, utilities and other expenses.

That limitation is amplified in downtown Portland, according to Mary Alice Scott, executive director of Portland Buy Local. Rents are so high in the Old Port, for instance, that a small business may have half its operating expenses tied up in rent.

“So you have the high costs,” she said, “but there’s no pot of money to pay for it.”

A recent media report identified Joe Soley, who has owned real estate in Portland for decades and has had disputes with city officials, as a target of criticism from business owners who said he has declined to negotiate any rental concessions.

But Soley’s personal assistant, P.J. Roberts, said Tuesday that the criticism is unfounded. She said Soley understands that some people can’t pay now and is willing to defer – but not forgive – April rent payments. She couldn’t predict what will happen in May.

“Whatever we can do to help our tenants to get them back and make them whole, we are going to do,” she said.

Through various companies, Soley owns buildings that house hundreds of business tenants in Maine, Roberts said. His sons, Tim and Jack,  are principals at East Brown Cow.

But at least one Portland landlord is willing to take a hit to help keep tenants afloat.

Katarina Weslien, left, and Alison Hildreth, co-owners of 61 Pleasant St. in Portland, are working with tenants to make sure no one is evicted. The owners are holding off on a small rent increase planned for this year and either deferring or forgiving some April rent payments. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Katarina Weslien owns The Bakery Studios on Pleasant Street with her business partner, Alison Hildreth. It’s home to a cafe and 25 artists and crafts people. And some of them have been unable to make their April rent payments.

“We have very good tenants,” Weslien said. “If people reach out to us for help, we will consider it case by case.”

Weslien said she and Hildreth are holding off on a small rent increase planned for this year and either deferring or forgiving some April rent payments, depending on the situation.

Weslien also has gotten involved with the small business coalition. She recorded a video to send to Mills, asking her to enact a statewide rent freeze and consider following the lead of states such as New Hampshire, which recently enacted a temporary ban on evictions and foreclosures.

Weslien stressed the importance of supporting small, independent businesses during the crisis. She asserted that some landlords would see it as an opportunity to evict tenants and raise rents.

“We think that’s just not right,” she said.

One long-term tenant, Artemisia Cafe, has been closed since late March, idling eight workers. The restaurant’s owner, Celia Bruns, said she thinks she can survive a few months. She still has bills to pay, including a loan for $80,000 worth of kitchen renovations.

Bruns has applied for an emergency loan through the U.S. Small Business Administration, but hasn’t heard back yet. So she was relieved last week when Weslien and Hildreth forgave her April rent, worth $2,200.

“They’ve always been extremely generous people,” she said.

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