Ivan Zhaya was laid off from his job as a social worker in December, which has made paying the monthly $1,100 rent on his studio apartment in Portland a problem.

Toss in the fact that Zhaya is immunocompromised and to be safe from the spread of COVID-19 orders groceries online to be delivered.

“Money got really tight, really fast,” he said.

By the end of February, Zhaya had found another job, but he also found himself owing more than $3,000 in back rent and inadequate means to make his March payment. His situation is not unique in Maine, where an estimated 11.3 percent of households are not current on their rent, according to a U.S. Census Bureau sampling covering the first two weeks of March.

In an effort to keep people housed amid an ongoing pandemic, the federal government provided rental relief funding in two recent stimulus packages.

The first, signed into law by former President Donald Trump in December, allocated $200 million to Maine as part of the Emergency Rental Assistance Program, or ERAP. The second, signed into law by President Biden last month, has another $152 million headed to Maine as part of the American Rescue Plan.

Funding for the latter won’t be available until May or June, after the U.S. Treasury Department sets guidelines for its use. However, the portal for ERAP applications opened on March 1.

Both tenants and landlords can apply for relief funding. Cooperation between the two makes the process easier because the other party must attest to the particulars of the lease agreement. There are safeguards against double-dipping on the same apartment or rental home.

As of Tuesday, roughly 8,500 applications for rental assistance had been filed, according to data provided by the Maine State Housing Authority, also known as MaineHousing, which estimates that a quarter of those are duplicates. Just over 1,300 applications are considered fully complete, with income, rent and landlord ownership of the unit all verified. The rest require follow-up work with tenants and landlords.

A total of $4.3 million already has been approved or paid toward rent and utilities for 910 households, with another 391 in the process of being certified.

HELP WITH OVERDUE RENT

Dan Brennan, director of MaineHousing, said his agency gained valuable experience from setting up a COVID-19 Rent Relief program last April that grew to include nearly 10,000 households and $23.5 million in state and federal funding.

MaineHousing works with 10 community action agencies around the state to manage rental relief programs, including The Opportunity Alliance in Cumberland County and the York County Community Action Corp.

“There’s a huge demand, so there’s a lot of work,” Brennan said, “but everybody feels like things are under control, and now it’s just a slog of cranking through the work.”

Brennan said an important difference to this year’s program is that it allows for the payment of arrearages, or overdue rent, dating to March 13, 2020. It also allows for up to three months of future rent, although any arrearage must be covered before funding current or future rent. The total is capped at 15 months.

“One of the things I’m most concerned about is that lots of renters might not know (the funding) is there, and it’s there to aid them in paying rent past or forward,” said Greg Payne, director of the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition.

Payne’s coalition was one of 13 signatories to a letter signed by 2,272 organizations across the nation urging Biden to extend the federal eviction moratorium issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention under the Trump administration. That moratorium had been set to expire Wednesday, but on Monday Biden extended it through the end of June.

Payne, however, again stressed that tenants must be knowledgeable enough to fill out a declaration form that provides protection against eviction for nonpayment of rent.

“If the tenant doesn’t know about it, it’s almost like there isn’t a moratorium,” he said. “So the more that word spreads that there is money to help and that there is a moratorium, the better off vulnerable people will be.”

MANY FIND A WAY TO PAY

The Maine Affordable Housing Coalition has been interviewing working, low-income renter households monthly throughout the pandemic in order to gain better insights into the challenges they face. About 59 percent reported lower earned income through reduced hours or job elimination because of the pandemic.

Even so, 84 percent of those households found a way to pay their February rent in full, down from 97 percent who were able to do so in June. Reliance on savings, credit cards or unemployment benefits allowed many of those surveyed to pay their rent, but 28 percent reported skipping other bills to do so.

Brennan, director of MaineHousing, said thanks to stimulus checks and unemployment assistance, the level of delinquency is lower than anticipated.

“But a lot of times, people pay their rent and go without other necessities,” he said. “Just because the rent’s paid doesn’t mean the household isn’t in crisis.”

Brit Vitalius, president of the Southern Maine Landlords Association, said Maine has done better than most states in getting owed money to landlords in order to preserve housing infrastructure. Vitalius said he sees a small number of cases in which tenants have gone seven or eight months without paying and have racked up thousands in arrearages.

David Chamberlain, an attorney who represents landlords, said most tenants are working with their landlords to seek federal relief funding if they are unable to pay on their own.

On the other hand, he said he noticed a recent arrearage of $21,000. He’s seen several others in the five-figure range, as well.

“So there are individual cases that are really bad,” Chamberlain said, “but as a whole, I’m hearing from my landlords that people are paying either through their own resources, or a combination of their resources and the rent relief, or through rent relief and other forms of assistance, like general assistance.”

Katie McGovern, an attorney with Pine Tree Legal Assistance, often provides free legal help in civil matters to low-income Mainers. She said pandemic-related changes to eviction proceedings have helped tenants because pretrial conferences and mediations are drawn out longer and done remotely.

“As opposed to everything happening in one morning, that has given people a chance to work out more of these cases,” McGovern said. “It has given tenants more of an opportunity to get a hold of legal assistance.”

It’s difficult to separate housing from health care, she said, noting that “becoming homeless really increases your risk of getting sick and spreading COVID.”

Martin Murray stands outside the senior-living apartment building where he lives in Portland. Murray, 61, worked in a visitor information booth until the pandemic forced much of the hospitality industry to shut down. He applied for the latest round of rent relief early in March and is still awaiting a decision. “You can promise all the money in the world, but if you don’t deliver anything, it doesn’t do anybody any good,” he said. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

PATIENCE REQUIRED FOR FUNDS

Even with all the relief funding available, the pace of application processing frustrates many.

Martin Murray of Portland has been out of work since he lost his part-time job at a visitor information booth a year ago. He received federal assistance to cover his $700 monthly rent for October, November and December, then was able to cover January and February by himself.

At 61, Murray said he gets by on Social Security disability insurance, unemployment benefits and what remains of his savings. On March 1, he applied for a sliver of the $200 million, and quickly received a return call requesting income verification and quickly sent that in.

“When I got off the phone, I was thinking, ‘This is great,’ ” he said. “But now that March is turning into April, I’m soon to be two months behind (in rent) and I still haven’t heard. … The programs are great, but if nobody tells you anything, it’s absolutely worthless. I’m sure there’s other people out there in the same boat as I am.”

Karen Turgeon, vice president of programs for The Opportunity Alliance, urges patience. She said her organization received more than 400 applications on the first day and nearly 5,000 in total. Some come in electronically and others paper copies that have to be entered into the system.

Federal regulations require gathering information from both tenant and landlord, as well as copies of any utility bills if those are overdue. A small percentage of landlords choose not to participate, because doing so comes with strings such as not evicting tenants or raising their rent for the rest of the year.

“This is a complicated process for staff to complete,” Turgeon said. “It’s so dependent on the tenants and the landlords returning their documents. One could be done in a day or it could take two weeks. It really depends on how responsive they are once we reach out.”

Turgeon said The Opportunity Alliance has already sent out two rounds of payments, on the last two Mondays of March. Among the 15 new staffers hired to help process rental relief applications is Zhaya, the laid-off social worker.

His application was recently approved. Funding will cover his rent through June as well as a $3,652 reimbursement to his landlord for back rent and late fees, which by Maine law cannot exceed 4 percent.

“This has been very helpful in relieving a lot of stress,” said Zhaya, who said he’s going to try to rebuild his savings, chip away at student loan debt and consider getting a car. “It’ll really help me get back on my feet and return to society.”

Related Headlines


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.