Maine’s successful distribution of emergency rental aid could stave off a tsunami of evictions and homelessness forecast in other parts of the country following the expiration of a federal eviction ban last week.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Tuesday announced a new, two-month prohibition on evictions for nonpayment of rent in U.S. counties with high or substantial COVID-19 transmission. In Maine, that designation currently covers eight counties – Cumberland, Kennebec, Piscataquis, Lincoln, York, Penobscot, Somerset and Waldo – but that number could expand or contract depending on fluctuations in cases.

A national eviction moratorium enacted by the U.S. CDC last year ended in July after the Supreme Court ruled that only Congress had the authority to extend it again.

Even without the protection the moratorium offered, housing officials say Maine’s successful rent relief program, funded with hundreds of millions of dollars in federal money, will help struggling tenants afford rent and stay in their homes.

“We’ve known that the eviction moratorium was going to expire sometime. We have been working hard and planning for this day for some time,” said Dan Brennan, director of the Maine State Housing Authority, also called MaineHousing.

Some states have struggled to get federal rent relief to needy tenants, but Maine has created an effective system, Brennan said. The state received more than $350 million for rent assistance from two federal laws passed in December and March.

$46 MILLION IN AID DELIVERED

Maine Housing has delivered more than $46 million to almost 9,300 households since the most recent federal program started in March. In June, it ranked in the top 20 states for the amount paid out and households assisted, far ahead of states that received more money from the program, according to the U.S. Treasury. The rental assistance, which is paid out to landlords, can pay rent and utilities or repay amounts in arrears.

The state also awarded a grant to Pine Tree Legal Assistance and Legal Services for the Elderly to hire more attorneys to help provide free legal aid to renters dealing with eviction cases. MaineHousing, community service agencies that manage relief applications and legal aid providers also have tried to coordinate to support tenants who have fallen behind on rent.

Last week, MaineHousing expanded eligibility for rental assistance, allowing people who are experiencing financial hardship during the pandemic – not just because of it – to receive aid for 18 months, up from the previous cutoff of 15 months.

“If people are being evicted for nonpayment of rent, if they qualify for this program, there should be no reason they can’t access it,” Brennan said. “Landlords and tenants alike should be aware of it to prevent an eviction that doesn’t need to happen.”

The moratorium didn’t cover all evictions. Landlords could still remove tenants for damaging property, creating disturbances or nuisances, or other reasons. But under the federal prohibition, tenants could block an eviction if they were behind on rent and met income guidelines.

EVICTION CASES DOWN

Even so, there have been fewer eviction cases so far in 2021 than in years past. David Chamberlain, a Portland attorney who works for landlords, said that in his experience, tenants filing for eviction protection in Maine have been few and far between.

“Nonpayment cases were the typical eviction we handled and it was very routine – they are down significantly,” Chamberlain said.

In June, there were about 250 eviction cases in Portland District Court, half the number of a typical month before the pandemic, he added.

“The CDC moratorium that was in effect virtually had no effect in Maine,” Chamberlain said. “Maine is one of the leading states rolling out the rent relief. Compared to other states, it is really working quite well.”

Rental assistance might be available, but tenants and landlords haven’t always received it on time, said Katie McGovern, a staff attorney at Pine Tree Legal Assistance. As the courts revert to pre-pandemic eviction processes, tenants could be caught in a bind if they don’t seek assistance early and landlords file to evict for unpaid rent.

“If rental assistance is going to have its desired effect of helping people avoid becoming homeless, it has to be delivered in a timely way,” McGovern said.

CHANGES TO PROCESS

Eviction courts also changed their process so that cases would move in three phases: a remote phone conference, then mediation and finally, if necessary, a court decision. That gave tenants and landlords time to reach a repayment agreement and make sure rental assistance could be used in the case, McGovern said. Starting in mid-August, Portland courts will return to in-person court hearings only.

“That means there is less time to figure out whether financial assistance is going to come through or finding a new place to live,” McGovern said. “There just aren’t places for people to move to, there is such a shortage of affordable housing. I don’t know what we are gong to see in terms of numbers, but I am worried we are going to see more people losing their homes.”

But Greg Payne, director of the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition, thinks rent relief is working well enough to avoid a wave of evictions.

“I think we are somewhat fortunate here – I think that is a real scenario in other parts of the country,” Payne said.

But with new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations rising again and concerns about the more infectious delta coronavirus variant, he said it’s good that the state has hundreds of millions of dollars to fall back on in case the risk of mass evictions rises again.

“There are lots of funds left,” Payne said. “That is welcome news, because each day appears to be unpredictable. It may be that we will need these rent relief dollars for quite a while.”

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