Low-income Mainers living in subsidized housing have largely managed to keep up with rent payments during the coronavirus pandemic, but not without some falling behind on other bills, using food pantries or relying on federal and state assistance, according to a new study by the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition.

That financial strategy is not sustainable, especially with key financial assistance programs and a moratorium on evictions set to end soon, affordable housing experts said.

Interviews with 31 working families living in subsidized housing in June indicated many were able to pay rent, but just barely. Housing advocates fear the looming expiration of enhanced federal unemployment benefits and return of eviction proceedings will put families at risk in an uncertain job market and sluggish economic recovery.

“‘The glue that has been holding it together for people is very tenuous,’ is what this information suggests to us,” said coalition director Greg Payne. “We feel that we are at a serious crossroads in the weeks ahead.”

The expectation was that timely rent payments would fall by as much as 25 percent during the economic downturn precipitated by COVID-19, Payne said. Instead, most families have managed to keep up.

“In both market housing and more affordable properties, rent is being paid at a better clip than anyone suspected,” he said.

But for many, paying rent has meant cutting back on other essentials. Nearly half the respondents said they’d sought aid from food pantries to lower their grocery bill. About 42 percent said they have fallen behind on monthly bills, including internet service and electricity.

Monthly rent for low-income housing in the Portland area ranges from $941 to $1,129 for a one-bedroom apartment, to $1,304 to $1,565 for a three-bedroom unit.

The initial round of interviews was part of a bigger research project to track the experiences of at least 80 working families living in developments that qualify for low-income housing tax credits.

While it is only a small sampling of people, Payne thinks the results shed light on how a much broader population has been able to continue paying rent while losing income as a result of the economic downturn precipitated by the pandemic.

Jamie Guevara is one of the few renters included in the study who’s fallen behind. Guevara owns his own painting business, but since the pandemic hit Maine, he has struggled to find work. So far this year, Guevara said he’s had only one painting job, which means he has lost 90 percent of his business.

“I got a little help from the state, (but) all my savings are gone,” he said “I’m a hard-working person. I saved a little money, but I still have a hard time getting all my bills paid.”

Guevara lives in a low-income housing development in South Portland with his 6-year-old son. He said he tried to get unemployment benefits, but was discouraged when he couldn’t get through the system. A $1,200 stimulus check from the federal government that would have helped never arrived, Guevara said.

His landlord, Avesta Housing, has been sympathetic and let him pay past-due rent in installments, but Guevara is still worried about putting food on the table and keeping a roof above his family’s head. He hopes a couple of job leads will help him get ahead.

“The biggest priority is to get back on my own two feet, and get some work, and make some money to survive,” Guevara said. “It is not just me – there are more tenants dealing with this terrible moment in life. I know for sure I’m not the only one.”

PainterJamie Guevara said he hasn’t been able to find work in the pandemic and couldn’t get through Maine’s unemployment system. “I got a little help from the state, (but) all my savings are gone.” Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

A $5 million rent relief program set up by Gov. Janet Mills in April granted one-time payments of $500 to eligible households. To date, more than $3.1 million has been paid out of the program.

Legal advocates fear that a looming expiration of a federal boost to unemployment benefits that adds $600 a week, as well as the return of eviction proceedings in Maine courts in August, could trigger a crisis.

“Even if the situation was exactly the same as it was last year, (with) eviction filings at the same rate, there would be about 2,000 evictions filed in August – that is one issue,” said Frank D’Alessandro, litigation and policy director at Maine Equal Justice. “Courts have been closed to eviction since March. The data is really unclear to us about how many people are current on their rent right now.”

Both tenants and landlords alike want to avoid widespread evictions as Maine moves into the next, uncertain phase of the pandemic and what is expected to be a slow and protracted economic recovery.

“Nobody wants that,” Brit Vitalius, president of the Southern Maine Landlord Association, said about mass evictions. “If it is an otherwise good tenant, of course nobody wants that.”

Rent collection has been far higher than anyone expected, likely because of increased unemployment benefits and state assistance, Vitalius said. But like others, he’s concerned what the expiration of those programs means for renters and building owners.

“I think by and large, landlords and tenants are working it out pretty well. Early on, landlords forgave rent, reduced rent – everyone is absorbing what they can and getting through it,” Vitalius said. “Now, after three or four months, landlords don’t anecdotally have as much of a sense of what tenants are going through. Most people I am talking to say the rents are just coming in, and everyone’s surprised.”

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