Kristie McDonald of Biddeford is medically compromised, has been unable to return to work and is now at risk for eviction. She says says more must be done to help tenants stay in their homes. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Housing advocates and public officials fear a wave of evictions when the courts resume hearings next month – and a proposed $50 million housing assistance plan may not be enough to stop it.

To date, nearly 13,000 households have applied for one-time payments of $500 in rental assistance from the state because of lost income during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some advocates say 2,000 or more evictions could be filed when the courts reopen for eviction proceedings in August.

So far, tenants have been paying rents at higher rates than some expected, and that has prevented more aggressive actions from landlords who have to keep up with mortgages and other expenses associated with their rental properties, according to recent surveys. But that has largely been because of additional public assistance and tenant protections, both of which are expected to expire in the coming weeks.

Portland City Councilor Tae Chong, who serves on the governor’s Economic Recovery Committee, said the number of people at risk of losing housing could be much higher, given that enhanced unemployment benefits are set to expire on Saturday. For many households, that extra $600 a week in unemployment benefits has been a “difference-maker,” he said, and the state should set aside more money to keep people housed and, by extension, healthy.

“The pain is coming and that pain is going to be real for many Mainers,” Chong said. “The more we have on the safety net side, the better chance we have at protecting public health and individual health.”

Among those worried about their future is Kristie McDonald. The 28-year-old Biddeford resident had surgery before the pandemic began and has been unable to return to work as a political canvasser for groups like the Maine People’s Alliance and Equality Maine because her doctors are concerned about her health. She waited a month and a half for unemployment. She’s been able to make ends meet thanks to the additional $600 in weekly unemployment, the one-time stimulus check, her modest savings, food stamps and borrowing money from friends and family. She’s also had to defer payments on her internet bill and has modified her phone bill, as well.

McDonald says more needs to be done – whether by property management companies, the state or a combination of both – to help tenants stay housed.

“I have to decide whether going back to work and risking my health is worth staying in my apartment,” she said. “Pushing (rent payments) off doesn’t really help people when they don’t know when they’re going to be able to go back to work.”

MAINE LACKS DATABASE

Maine currently does not have a centralized database of eviction filings to inform lawmakers about the scale of the challenge. Eviction cases can only be reviewed in person at 29 district courthouses throughout the state.

The Maine Affordable Housing Coalition is working to change that. Over the last few months, the group has been poring over eviction filings at courthouses in six counties to begin tracking evictions once court hearings resume Aug. 3, said Greg Payne, the coalition’s director. Records from Cumberland, York, Sagadahoc, Androscoggin, Kennebec and Penobscot counties would provide data for 75 percent of the state’s roughly 190,000 renters.

“It’s a good proxy,” Payne said, adding that he expects the database to be finished by the time eviction hearings resume. “While we lack the staffing to send people to courts farther away, we want to do that and we’re trying to figure out a way to do that.”

Courts throughout Maine already have 515 evictions awaiting hearings, including 110 new evictions that were filed between March 13 and June 26, according to data provided by the Maine Judicial Branch. The other 405 evictions were filed before the pandemic and postponed until eviction hearings resume. Courts in Portland and Lewiston had the highest number of new eviction filings during the pandemic, with 22 and 26, respectively.

BRACING FOR A WAVE OF EVICTIONS

But housing advocates, including Maine Equal Justice and Pine Tree Legal, are bracing for wave of additional eviction filings as soon as the courts reopen and Gov. Janet Mills’ prohibition on evictions expires Aug. 6.

Maine Equal Justice said nearly 5,400 evictions had been filed statewide in 2020 before the courts closed, and if the eviction rates for March through July are similar to the previous year, another 2,000 evictions could be filed in August. The nonprofit applauded the Economic Recovery Committee’s recommendation to devote $50 million toward housing needs, though it is unclear what level of assistance Mills will provide.

“To rebuild a stronger and more resilient Maine, we need to focus attention on the needs of Maine people, not just Maine businesses,” Robyn Merrill, executive director of Maine Equal Justice, said in a written statement. “We urge the governor, the Legislature, and the courts to keep the lives and livelihoods of Maine people, especially those who are least able to stay afloat in a faltering economy, at the center of the response to this crisis.”

While tenants can face eviction for other reasons, financial pressures represent a significant portion of recent filings. Payne said his staff’s initial research has shown that 89 of the 122 eviction filings, 0r 73 percent, filed in Portland District Court from January to March 18 were for nonpayment of rent, while 23 were for behavioral issues with tenants. Of the 36 complaints filed from March 19 through June, 12 were for nonpayment.

Katie McGovern, an attorney for Pine Tree Legal, a nonprofit that provides legal aid to people with low incomes, said the courts have yet to provide clear guidance about how they will handle eviction proceedings when courts reopen. She said some tenants have been receiving eviction notices from their landlords, but rather than listing a hearing date, the notices say the date is to be determined.

McGovern is concerned that Pine Tree Legal may not be able to help as many tenants facing evictions as it normally could. That’s because its attorneys often meet clients at the courthouse on the day of their hearings, which may not be possible, because of the pandemic, when the courts reopen.

“We are very concerned about a flood of evictions,” McGovern said. “A flood of evictions would be a serious public health issue and could jeopardize Maine’s relatively low rates of infection. This is still a particularly terrible time to become homeless.”

Amy Quinlin, a spokesperson for the Maine Judiciary, did not respond to a request for information about why landlords have been able to file eviction notices with the courts while the statewide prohibition has been in place. She also did not respond to questions about how the courts planned to handle eviction cases going forward.

Mills issued an executive order in April prohibiting most evictions and said that any landlord who tries to illegally evict a tenant by shutting off utilities or other measures could face a $1,000 fine and up to six months in jail. She also created a $5 million COVID-19 Rent Relief Fund, under which eligible households could receive a one-time rent subsidy of $500 that’s made payable to the landlord. That program is expected to run out of money this month.

MILLS WEIGHS HOUSING ASSISTANCE

Mills also is concerned about evictions and is evaluating the recommendation to allocate $50 million for housing assistance, a spokeswoman said.

“With the $600 in additional federal unemployment benefits scheduled to expire, she is deeply concerned about the housing cliff that many Maine people, particularly lower-income Maine people, may face,” Lindsay Crete said in an email. “As her administration evaluates the Economic Recovery Committee’s recommendations, it will also work closely with MaineHousing and others to see what actionable steps can be taken immediately to protect people affected by COVID-19 from experiencing homelessness.”

The committee recommended spending $50 million on housing assistance, including $5 million to rapidly rehouse people who lose their homes so they don’t end up in homeless shelters. An additional $45 million for rent subsidies could provide an average monthly benefit of $750 to about 12,000 households from Aug. 1 through the end of the year, according to committee records.

The Southern Maine Landlord Association has been surveying landlords on a monthly basis since the pandemic hit, and the group’s president said he and his members have been surprised by the number of people who have been able to continue paying rent during the crisis. Brit Vitalius hopes this month’s survey will shed more light on how tenants are making ends meet and whether they will be able to continue paying rent if government assistance goes away.

“At the moment it’s not as big a problem as we all thought it would be,” he said. “But we’re looking to the future to see if it will become a problem, especially if these resources are going to dry up.”

Crystal Cron, of Presente! Maine, said her group has been working with many Spanish-speaking families in the Portland area who are not eligible for most government assistance because of their immigration status. She said it’s not uncommon for three to four families, whose members work in congregate settings like seafood processing plants, to live in the same apartment.

Cron estimated that the LatinX community in Portland alone would need up to $3 million over the next few months, because many have back rents piling up of between $2,000 to $3,000. And their landlords are eager to get paid.

“Essentially, they have been getting threatened all along and they need to make good on the rent right away,” Cron said. “I foresee mass evictions in these buildings starting in September. I’m really concerned about where all of these people are going to go. And I’m not talking about a couple of families – thousands of people could end up on the streets.”

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