Thousands of Mainers are an unexpected event away from being homeless, even in the best economic times.

Losing a job, a sudden illness or even a surprise car repair bill can be enough to make a family fall behind on their rent and set off an economic spiral that puts them out on the street.

Housing advocates say that the coronavirus pandemic is one of those unexpected events, but this time it’s happening to everyone all at once, and we have no system to deal with it. Since mid March, 76,000 Mainers have filed for unemployment benefits, far exceeding the worst weeks of the Great Recession. Those claims show only a glimpse of what’s to come if tens of thousands of Maine families can’t afford to stay housed.

It was encouraging to hear Gov. Janet Mills discuss the issue in a press briefing on Tuesday. She said the state is drafting legal language to order a moratorium on evictions and allow renters to defer payments for a period. “We are looking at a carefully targeted executive order that will stop writs of possession from taking place, from being issued in residential cases and in commercial cases as well,” said Mills.

But the governor said that the state can’t forgive rent that’s due, because that’s a contractual matter between the landlord and tenant.

Someone has to pay the rent, though, and this is where the state and federal governments have to step up. People who live paycheck to paycheck won’t have the extra cash to pay previous months’ rent, even when they get back to work. Most landlords are small businesses with mortgages, and they don’t have the income to meet their obligations without collecting rent.

This is a role that only the government can fill, and there is a strong public interest in keeping people housed. The stay-at-home order doesn’t just lower the chances that an individual will catch COVID-19, it also protects the whole community by slowing the spread of the virus. People who have to move in with friends or relatives or who end up lining up outside a homeless shelter because they were evicted create opportunities for the virus to spread.

The first waves of federal support rightly focused on immediate needs, like medical equipment and emergency aid to unemployed workers and small businesses. The next version should pay to keep people in their homes during this crisis. The simplest way to accomplish that is to pay their rent.

According to The Wall Street Journal, nearly one third of renters across the nation did not pay any of their rent on April 1. Expect that to compound in May, when many parts of the country will experience a full month of job loss and economic slowdown resulting from the pandemic response. With no end in sight, the government needs to act now.

COVID-19 exposes what has been an underlying weakness in the housing economy. According to the U.S. Census, 40 percent of renters are “rent burdened,” spending 35 percent of family income on housing and utilities. When individuals lose their housing because of an unexpected event in their lives, it’s easy to see it as a matter of poor planning and a personal responsibility. But when the same unexpected event happens to everyone, all at once, it’s obvious that our approach to housing policy is unnecessarily cruel and dangerous.

A government that can afford to bail out industries can afford to keep people in their homes – not just during this crisis, but always.

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