For the last 15 months, I’ve worked with the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition to interview renters across Maine, aiming to find out not only if they were able to pay their rent during the pandemic, but also how. After more than a year of asking Maine families to share their struggles, worries, financial lives and coping strategies with me, the reality cannot be denied: The fallout from the pandemic has hit some Mainers much harder than others.

Four major findings emerged from these interviews: 1) Low-income renters have depleted their savings and taken on more debt; 2) Anxiety about employment remains high, and one third of renters still haven’t recovered to their pre-pandemic income level; 3) Rental assistance has been a confusing and often frustrating process, but is vital in keeping vulnerable households stably housed; 4) Stimulus payments, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program funds and extra unemployment benefits helped fill the gaps.

The old saying rings true for most tenants: “The rent eats first.” As working households lost jobs or hours, but the full rent was nonetheless due every month, many had to make difficult decisions about how to ensure their housing security at a time when remaining safe at home mattered in a newly urgent way. Confronted with this new reality, many families chose to keep current on their rent by spending down their modest savings, shifting other expenses to credit cards and skipping bills like electricity and internet. Those decisions may have been necessary to address short-term challenges, but are likely to have serious long-term impacts on their financial well-being.

The loss of savings may ultimately be the most devastating long-term legacy of the pandemic for many renter households: While homeowners are realizing significantly increased wealth as a result of the steep rise in home values throughout Maine, many renters have fallen further behind because of rising rents and the decimation of the nest eggs they had developed over time.

The tenuous nature of the jobs that many renters returned to is also causing great concern about income stability, while others remain challenged to get back to work by health and child care concerns. Many interviewees cited frustration with losing work hours to sickness, temporary layoffs and requirements to quarantine without pay. Fewer than 20 percent of interviewees reported being allowed to work from home. Uncertain and inconsistent paychecks have proven to be a poor fit with rent obligations, as well as with qualifying for assistance programs with strict income limits.

Maine’s renters gave clear and compelling insights into their lives throughout the project that policymakers would be wise to listen to. First, spreading the word about the availability of rental assistance is critical in ensuring Maine families don’t fall further behind as the pandemic drags on. Interviewees employed less-than-preferable financial trade-offs to ensure their rent was paid, some of which will likely have long term impacts on the wellness of individual families and our economy as a whole. Ensuring everyone who needs help – both tenants and landlords – knows how to access the rent relief program is important for stemming the more serious and long-lasting financial choices families have already had to make.

Second, policymakers should keep in mind how the pandemic has affected assets, not just incomes, and encourage initiatives that help low-income people in particular regain the assets they’ve lost.

Finally, one cannot talk about the pandemic without noting its outsized impacts on parents. School cycling in and out, limited child care options for both school-aged and very young children, and justifiable fears about virus spread among kids under 12 have all piled on top of the economic challenges parents are facing. For many of the families in our project, an entire income had to be given up in order to accommodate ever-changing school and child care situations. Parents whose jobs do not allow them to work from home are under extreme stress, and lawmakers would do well to focus on expanding safe child care options to allow more people to go back to work.

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