Maine is using federal money to launch a $50 million fund to help those at risk of losing their homes due to financial hardships created by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Homeowner Assistance Fund is intended to help those who could lose their homes because of missed mortgage payments, high utility bills or unpaid property taxes. Funding comes from the federal government’s response to the pandemic, the American Rescue Plan, which was passed in early 2021.

“The pandemic has been hard for a lot of Maine people, stretching wallets thinner and forcing hardworking folks to reach deeper in their pockets to make ends meet,” Gov. Janet Mills said Thursday in announcing the plan.

The plan will offer up to $25,000 in total benefits per household. With mortgage assistance, it’s only available once other foreclosure mitigation options have been exhausted and is capped at $25,000. Up to $15,000 is available to help with unpaid property taxes and up to $10,000 for utility payments – homeowners must be at risk of losing their homes or having utilities cut off before they can get help from the plan. In addition, those applying for help from the fund must be able to show a direct link between the pandemic and their financial problems, circumstances such as reduced hours or layoffs due to COVID-19.

Eligible homeowners also can apply to the fund for money to pay past due homeowner’s, flood or mortgage insurance; past due bills for internet services; past due homeowner association or condo association fees; and past due manufactured home loan debt.

The fund is aimed at those who own a house – previous aid plans have helped renters – and their household income must be below the median for the part of the state where the homeowner lives. Statewide, the median household income in 2020 was $59,489, according to the Census Bureau.

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Payments from the fund will be made directly to creditors, such as mortgage servicers, towns and cities or utility companies.

“We know there is a pent-up demand for these funds,” said Will Lund, superintendent of the Maine Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection, which will oversee the fund. “This will help folks get back on their feet.”

Lund said 400 people had applications into the fund on its first day in operation and another 2,000 people had asked to be notified once the program was in place so they could apply for help.

“The phone is ringing nonstop and we expect that will continue for a couple of weeks,” he said.

Lund said many people are just now starting to see the real impact of lost wages and unpaid bills due to the pandemic. Many mortgage companies, for instance, eased their payment policies while the pandemic was surging, but those programs are ending.

Some mortgagers might be pushing to foreclose now because the hot real estate market means they will be better able to recover their money if a borrower falls behind, said Nicole DiGeronimo, director of Avesta Housing’s Homeownership Center.

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During the wave of foreclosures in the Great Recession, which started in 2008, home prices were depressed, she said, and foreclosing on and selling a house largely offered mortgagers a way to cut their losses. But with home prices soaring now in Maine and elsewhere, DiGeronimo said, mortgagers believe that they will be able to recover all their money if they foreclose and sell the property.

FUND GIVES AGENCIES ANOTHER TOOL

DiGeronimo said the homeowner fund offers agencies like Avesta’s Homeownership Center another tool to help struggling borrowers.

Before the fund was established, there was no state or federal money to help borrowers who were behind on their payments, she said. The best her center could do was offer tips and support for homeowners to negotiate a way out of foreclosure with lenders.

The fund, she said, will provide money to pay bills, the most effective tool for helping homeowners avoid foreclosure. And, DiGeronimo said, it’s important that the fund will also  provide help with utility, tax or other bills – “anything that’s going to disrupt their housing situation.”

A fund aimed at helping homeowners is especially important in Maine, which has a high percentage of homeowners, DiGeronimo and Lund said.

And as the state with the highest median age in the country, those homeowners are especially vulnerable, they said. DiGeronimo said many of the state’s residents are retirees on fixed incomes and mortgage payments can be beyond the reach of many when the costs of other items are rising.

Homeowners can get answers to questions and start the application process at maine.gov/homeassist or by calling the Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection at 888-664-2569. The bureau is also working with housing counselors, such as Avesta Housing; Coastal Enterprises; York County Community Action; and also with legal aid groups, including Legal Aid Services for the Elderly and Pine Tree Legal Assistance.


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