Last week, as part of an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the Trump administration put a halt on certain residential evictions through the end of the year.

Lynnea Hawkins, who is not a fan of the president, welcomed the moratorium. She said when she heard news of it, she wanted to cheer.

“I have friends in Alabama and Louisiana, states where a landlord can evict someone in 24 hours instead of 30 days like here in Maine,” said Hawkins, a community organizer in Lewiston who also serves on that city’s School Committee. “They are both living through several shades of hell right now after having been evicted.”

Tenant advocates say the moratorium may help thousands of struggling Mainers remain sheltered through the end of the year. Still, advocates for both tenants and landlords say it’s merely a stopgap measure, and that another congressional financial relief package is needed to fully address the looming threat of mass homelessness.

Tenant advocates worry that the moratorium contains no financial aid or rent forgiveness for tenants, which could create a situation in which accrued past-due rent payments lead to mass evictions in 2021. Meanwhile, landlords say the moratorium won’t provide them with any financial relief, either.

The national moratorium on evictions took effect Friday through an unusual channel. Unlike the four-month protection offered by the federal CARES Act, passed by Congress in March, last week’s order came courtesy of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which deemed it necessary to protect public health.

From Sept. 4 through Dec. 31, landlords may not evict any “covered person” from a residential property for failure to pay rent. To be covered, renters must not make more than $99,000 per year (or double that for couples filing jointly). Furthermore, renters must demonstrate they have applied for government assistance to help pay their rent, affirm they are unable to pay because of pandemic-related hardships, and affirm they are likely to become homeless if evicted.

Judges in Maine, already facing a backlog of eviction filings that piled up while courts were closed during the coronavirus pandemic, are reviewing the CDC order.

The CDC order includes no financial assistance for tenants or landlords, so unpaid rent through the end of the year presumably will come due on Jan. 1, possibly with interest and/or late fees.

Alison Weiss, communications director for the Augusta-based advocacy group Maine Equal Justice, said it’s good to see a national policy recognizing that “housing is health care, especially during a pandemic.”

Absent another congressional relief bill that provides rental assistance, however, Weiss said “a moratorium is kicking the financial can down the road.”

STATE RELIEF HAS HELPED

States and some municipalities also have enacted their own eviction protections as part of an effort to prevent more people from becoming homeless while a highly contagious virus circulates throughout the country. In Maine, Gov. Janet Mills issued an executive order in April prohibiting most evictions and created a $5 million COVID-19 Rent Relief Fund.

Initially, eligible households could receive a one-time subsidy of $500 made payable to the landlord. At the end of July, Mills extended the fund, doubled the assistance to $1,000 and stretched it out to three months. The assistance also can be used to pay overdue rent.

At the same time, Mills extended the eviction notice lead time from seven to 30 days and required landlords with “at-will” tenants, who have no established lease terms, to provide at least 45 days of notice (up from 30) to vacate the premises for failing to make their rent payment.

Brit Vitalius, president of the Southern Maine Landlord Association, said that to everyone’s surprise, rent collections since the pandemic disrupted everyone’s lives in mid-March have been averaging 95 to 96 percent, close to normal levels.

“I would expect that many landlords would have a knee-jerk reaction to (the CDC order) and be frustrated by it,” Vitalius said, “but the governor has just provided basically three more months of rental funding to landlords and tenants, including retroactively. So there really is no reason – and I haven’t heard of any cases – where a landlord is pursuing eviction of a tenant for COVID-related reasons if the tenant has pursued some of the other support that’s available to them.”

The combination of stimulus checks, state rental assistance and federal unemployment compensation that provided an extra $600 per week from early April to late July put enough money into the system to keep rent payments flowing, Vitalius said.

Eviction proceedings involving physical destruction of property, harassment of other tenants or similar behavioral issues should be allowed to continue, he argued.

The new national moratorium on evictions “just puts a cap on landlords being jerks, which,” he said, “we’re not hearing instances for.”

Mark Pierson of Saco, who somewhat reluctantly became the landlord in December for a house in Gorham because of a foreclosure situation, had begun an eviction process in February against tenants he said had failed to pay rent and allowed the house to fall into disrepair. Among other things, he said, the tenants have a menagerie of pets and have filled the garage with bags of garbage.

“It should be up to the judge to decide who is evicted and not a blanket statement from the government saying all evictions are on hold,” Pierson said. “What are landlords supposed to do with no income? Landlords have to pay their bills.”

SCRAMBLING TO PAY RENT

Tenant advocates in Maine braced for a wave of late-summer evictions after CARES Act protections expired July 24, courts reopened and protections issued by Gov. Mills expired Aug. 6. So far, however, filings remain far below the levels of recent years. Statewide, there were 213 eviction filings in August, less than half the total of 537 in the same month of 2019, according to data provided by the Maine Judicial Branch.

In the five years prior to the pandemic’s arrival, Maine’s annual eviction filings averaged 5,801, which works out to a monthly figure of 483.

Then again, Katie McGovern, an attorney with Pine Tree Legal Assistance who works primarily in Portland District Court, said she has seen an uptick in the number of calls concerning evictions notices.

“In August, we had 40 intakes of new eviction cases (in Cumberland County),” she said. “That’s double what we did in the same period a year ago.”

Greg Payne, director of the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition, said it’s important to understand how working households are managing to pay rent and avoid eviction proceedings. To gain such knowledge, his organization has been conducting monthly, in-depth phone interviews with more than 75 low-income households that rely on earned income to pay all or part of their rent.

Interviews began in June, spread across 20 different municipalities, and will continue for a year. Early findings, according to Payne, are that half of households reported lower earned income, through reduced hours or job elimination, as a direct result of the pandemic. Even so, 88 percent of the households were able to pay their full July rent, in many cases by borrowing, depleting savings or skipping other bills. Assistance from local food pantries allowed 31 percent of the households to instead spend money earmarked for groceries on rent or other bills.

“People are petrified of losing their housing, so they’re finding a way to pay rent,” Payne said. “The bigger issue: Is that sustainable?”

Payne called the CDC’s eviction moratorium a “wonderful thing” but said it’s only one part of a two-part solution.

“The rent is still due,” he said. “Landlords still need to collect rent to pay their mortgages and their staff. Now that we know renters who are impacted by COVID are safe from eviction, we’re focused on Congress including rental assistance in a relief package. That’s the other half of the equation, so there’s not a big debt owed when December 31 comes around.”

MAINE SENATORS WEIGH IN

Back in May, the Democratic-controlled U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation known as the HEROES Act that included $100 billion in emergency rental assistant for low-income tenants at risk of eviction. The Republican-controlled U.S. Senate, which is scheduled to reconvene Tuesday after being adjourned since Aug. 13, has taken no action on that bill.

Grayson Lookner, a housing advocate in Portland, speaks to a group gathered Sept. 1 in Lobsterman Park, across the street from Sen. Susan Collins’ Portland office, to demand an end to evictions. The demonstration, organized by Mainers for Accountable Leadership, was held on the day rent was due for many Mainers. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Mainers for Accountable Leadership organized an eviction protest early last week in Portland, just before the CDC order was announced. Marie Follayttar, co-director of the organization, said the moratorium is a stopgap measure, and that federal action is required “so renters who owe back rent can receive additional relief, and landlords with mortgages can receive assistance so they can maintain their properties. Basically, we’re in a waiting room until the U.S. Senate chooses to act or not act.”

Maine’s two U.S. senators weighed in on the issue with statements in response to queries from the Portland Press Herald.

“I continue to support Congressional action on another bipartisan relief package to address the health and economic crisis precipitated by the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican. “With families struggling to pay housing costs and with homelessness on the rise, the Senate should take additional action to address housing needs.”

As chairwoman of the Housing Appropriations Subcommittee, Collins said she has worked with the Department of Housing and Urban Development to prevent foreclosures and evictions in federally assisted or insured housing for tenants unable to pay their mortgage or rent because of the pandemic.

Collins also pointed out that in June, she was one of four senators who introduced a bipartisan bill authorizing $800 million to create an emergency family stabilization fund. That bill is currently stalled in committee.

Sen. Angus King, an independent, called the CDC moratorium a step in the right direction, but he said more action is necessary.

“In order to truly address this issue, these eviction protections must last through the end of the public health crisis – because it is the status of the virus, not the date on the calendar, which will determine when this storm has passed,” he said. “I’m also concerned the CDC’s order does nothing to help small landlords who rely on rental income to pay their own mortgages. If we want to prevent a domino effect, the government must provide these landlords with mortgage forbearance.”

King also expressed his disappointment at the lack of urgency shown by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

“It is creating real pain, for real people,” King said. “To ignore this hurt, and offer nothing but empty political statements, is a pitiful response to a moment of national need; as the Senate returns to session, I truly hope the Majority Leader will end his stalling and engage in real negotiations to provide much-needed relief.”

David Chamberlain, an attorney who represents landlords in a large number of eviction cases each year, said the scope of the CDC order is far wider than that of the CARES Act protections, which applied only to federally subsidized or federally backed housing.

He said it places an undue burden on private, fair-market landlords and believes it will be challenged on constitutional grounds.

As a philosophical matter, he said, “why should private landlords be providing the public dole?”

Hawkins, the organizer from Lewiston, said her friend in Alabama who got evicted is a single mother who has been couch-surfing and recently found a job. With help from friends, she has an apartment lined up and will be moving in shortly.

So even if the moratorium came about only because an election looms, Hawkins is nonetheless pleased that her friend will be protected from eviction at least through the end of the year.

“I really don’t care (about) the motivation,” she said. “I don’t really care, if it’s one less family on the street. This is long overdue as far as I’m concerned. I just worry for all the people this is too late for.”

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