Grayson Lookner, a housing advocate, speaks to a group gathered Tuesday in Lobsterman Park, across the street from Sen. Susan Collins’ Portland office, to demand measures to prevent evictions. The demonstration, organized by Mainers for Accountable Leadership, was held on the day rent is due for many Mainers. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Growing concerns over a wave of possible evictions before winter weather arrives in Maine sparked a peaceful protest in downtown Portland on Tuesday afternoon.

About 20 demonstrators gathered at Lobsterman Park on Temple Street, near Sen. Susan Collin’s Portland office, to call on the federal government to extend the previously expired evictions moratorium and to provide rental assistance to tenants who may have lost their jobs due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

If the federal government continues to do nothing, protesters said that more people will be forced from their homes and onto the streets where they will become homeless. The protest, which was organized by Mainers for Accountable Leadership, was purposely held on Sept. 1, the day that rent payments are due for many tenants.

“Think about what a home means to us. It’s not just a place to shelter, it’s our community,” said Betsy Sweet, who unsuccessfully ran to become the Democratic candidate to challenge Collins, a Republican, for her Senate seat. “There are thousands of Mainers today, who are scared to death that they may lose their homes. Our country has the money to fix this. It’s not asking too much, it’s not socialism, it’s about preserving basic, human dignity.”

Collins said the Senate should take action to keep people in their homes.

“As the chairman of the Housing Appropriations Subcommittee, I am calling on my colleagues to come together to pass a bipartisan package that provides rental assistance for those who are unable to pay their rent as a consequence of the pandemic,” Collins said in a statement issued by her office Tuesday night.

Soon after the protest ended Tuesday, the Trump administration issued a directive halting the eviction of certain renters through the end of 2020. Federal, state and local governments have approved eviction moratoriums during the course of the COVID-19 pandemic for many renters, but protections are due to expire. A recent report from one think thank, the Aspen Institute, stated that more than 20 million renters live in households that have suffered COVID-19 related job loss and Aspen Institute concluded that millions more are at risk of eviction in the next several months, The Associated Press reported.

The Trump administration order instructs federal health officials to consider measures to temporarily halt evictions. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention followed up by declaring that any landlord shall not evict any “covered person” from any residential property for failure to pay rent.

Former Democratic Senate candidate Betsy Sweet speaks to a group in Lobsterman Park, across the street from Sen. Susan Collins’ Portland office, in Tuesday’s protest organized by Mainers for Accountable Leadership.

In order to be covered, renters must meet four criteria: have an income of $198,000 or less for couples filing jointly, or $99,000 for single filers, demonstrate that they have sought government assistance, affirm they are likely to become homeless if evicted and prove they are unable to pay rent due to hardships caused by the pandemic.

It wasn’t clear Tuesday night what effect the administration’s directive would have on eviction proceedings in Maine.

Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat, issued a statement Tuesday demanding that the federal government protect Americans from what she called a “tsunami of evictions.” Pingree said that the National Low Income Housing Coalition estimates that between 57,000 and 129,000 Mainers are at risk of eviction, or up to roughly 10 percent of Maine’s population.

Pingree and 43 other members of  Congress signed a letter that was delivered Monday to Benjamin Carson Sr., secretary of Housing and Urban Development; Steven Mnuchin, secretary of the Treasury; and Sonny Perdue, secretary of the Department Agriculture, asking that they take immediate action to halt evictions and prevent “a gut-wrenching rise in homelessness.”

“Evictions risk lives, drive families deeper into poverty, further burden overstretched health care systems, and make it much more difficult for the country to contain the coronavirus,” lawmakers wrote. “The price of inaction is far greater than the cost of providing essential rental assistance to households at risk of eviction and homelessness. Keeping Americans affordably and stably housed during this pandemic is both a moral imperative and a public health necessity.”

Speakers at the Portland protest said the eviction threat is real for many Mainers who are being faced with homelessness because they can’t afford to pay their rent. They said they plan to stage protests on the first of every month until government relief is granted.

Carolyn Silvius, who has experienced homelessness, begged state and federal leaders to extend the eviction moratorium indefinitely.

“The state of Maine can’t afford to do this itself. We need federal help,” Silvius said. She said shelters would be overwhelmed this winter if people are evicted from their homes.

Grayson Lookner, a Portland housing advocate, said America is one of the wealthiest nations on earth.

“Is it too much to ask, to have housing as a basic, human right?” Lookner said. “Our leaders are failing us, at all levels.”

In April, Maine Gov. Janet Mills issued an executive order prohibiting most evictions in the middle of the pandemic. With restrictions in place on court activity during the early months of the pandemic, eviction actions against tenants unable to pay their rent were suspended.

But the governor’s prohibition on evictions expired Aug. 6, about the same time the federal government stopped providing an extra $600 a month in unemployment benefits. That combination, and the resumption of court hearings left many renters and advocates fearing a wave of eviction actions in the coming weeks and months.

Maine courts have resumed hearing eviction cases and extra hearings are being scheduled because of the backlog of old cases, including many filed before the pandemic hit. It is unclear how many evictions have been filed since the courts resumed proceedings in August, although the first of those cases are now reaching the courts.

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.

Portland District Court is holding weekly eviction hearings throughout September and will resume biweekly hearings in October for evictions in communities such as Portland, Westbrook, Scarborough, Cape Elizabeth and Yarmouth, among others.

Sixteen eviction cases were adjudicated in August. Some landlords won their cases because tenants didn’t show up to court or had moved out of their apartment after being served court papers. Others reached agreements with their landlords.

As of Tuesday, about 65 eviction cases are on the court docket from Sept. 3 through Oct. 22.

Of the 28 cases reviewed by the Press Herald, 19 were initiated for failure to pay rent, with outstanding balances ranging from $1,378 in Portland to over $10,000 in Yarmouth.

That number of filings, however, doesn’t appear to be the deluge feared by tenant advocates, though many tenants continue to struggle in the economic recession.

In all of fiscal 2019, 5,376 eviction cases were filed statewide, or about 448 a month, according to the state judicial branch website. Of those, 834 eviction cases were filed in Region 2, which includes district courts in Bridgton and Portland. That’s an average of about 70 cases a month and is the lowest level in five years.

According to the Maine judicial branch’s legislative analyst, 56 evictions were filed in July 2019 and 63 evictions were filed in Augusta 2019 in Portland District Court. Statewide, 491 evictions were filed in July 2019 and 537 in August 2019.

The analyst could not immediately provide the number of eviction filings for July and August of this year.

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