PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — A federal freeze on most evictions enacted last year is scheduled to expire Saturday, after President Joe Biden’s administration extended the original date by a month.
The moratorium, put in place by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in September, was the only tool keeping millions of tenants in their homes. Many of them lost jobs during the coronavirus pandemic and had fallen months behind on their rent.
Landlords successfully challenged the order in court, arguing they also had bills to pay. They pointed out that tenants could access nearly $47 billion in federal money set aside to help pay rents and related expenses.
Advocates for tenants said the distribution of the money had been slow and that more time was needed to distribute it and repay landlords. Without an extension, they feared a spike in evictions and lawsuits seeking to boot out tenants who were behind on their rents.
Even with the delay, roughly 3.6 million people in the U.S. as of July 5 said they face eviction in the next two months, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey. The survey measures the social and economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic every two weeks through online responses from a representative sample of U.S. households.
Here’s the situation in Maine:
WHAT’S THE STATUS OF EVICTION MORATORIUMS IN THE STATE?
Maine never had a moratorium on evictions at the state level. However, courts were closed early in the pandemic and that delayed most evictions except during emergency situations. Court rules banned most evictions in mid-March and those rules stayed in effect until Aug. 1, 2020. People can now be evicted for reasons other than back rent.
WHAT’S BEING DONE TO HELP PEOPLE FACING EVICTION?
There were several iterations of rent relief in Maine. Gov. Janet Mills and MaineHousing created a $5 million rent relief program in April 2020, offering up to $500 paid directly to landlords for tenants meeting certain criteria. On July 30, 2020, Mills extended that program through the end of the year, providing up to $1,000 per month for tenants who met certain income-based eligibility requirements. On Dec. 31, the rent assistance all came to an end. But it restarted on March 1 with the benefit of $200 million provided by Congress. The state has received 40% of an additional $150 million in federal relief, and will receive the rest later.
The state announced Thursday that it was expanding the number of months a household could receive benefits from 15 months to 18 months effective Aug. 2. Based on federal guidance, it also tweaked eligibility requirements so that applicants have to show they experienced difficulties “during” the pandemic instead of “because” of the pandemic. Maine’s rental assistance is distributed by MaineHousing through community action programs, and there have been some notable delays processing applications.
All told, the emergency rental assistance program has helped 9,286 Maine households with $46.2 million in paid and approved funding during the pandemic, officials said.
HOW ARE THE COURTS HANDLING EVICTION HEARINGS?
Most evictions were held remotely during the pandemic, but more of them are being allowed in person as the summer progresses. There has been no pandemic spike in evictions, and evcition rates are actually lower than before the pandemic, said Greg Payne, director of the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition. There's no firm count on the total number of evictions during the pandemic. But Maine court data indicates there were 28% fewer eviction filings in the 2020 fiscal year compared to the previous year.
WHAT IS THE AFFORDABILITY IN THE STATE’S MAJOR RENTAL MARKETS?
Maine's urban centers are facing a housing crunch, and some places, including Portland, have extremely tight real estate markets. The Maine Association of Realtors reports that median home values grew by double digits every month starting in July 2020. Statewide, the increase was nearly 25% per the latest data available in June. The median value of a home in the state's most populous county, Cumberland, was $347,00 in April 2020 and grew to $450,000 by June 2021.
ARE EVICTIONS EXPECTED TO CREATE A SURGE IN HOMELESSNESS?
It’s hard to say how much homelessness will increase in Maine. But that's a worry and shelters have been busy during the pandemic. A bill was recently approved in the Maine Legislature requiring MaineHousing to partner with Pine Tree Legal Assistance to ensure every tenant understands their rights and the eviction process and, if eligible, receives rental assistance. The bill requires the courts to provide information to tenants on the availability of rental assistance, housing counseling resources, and court mediation services. The governor signed the bill into law.