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Business and Economy

Maine Joins Several Dozen States In Taking Action On Evictions Amid Pandemic

Willis Ryder Arnold
Maine Public file
A man walks down the West End neighborhood in Portland, Maine. The city is banning short term rentals to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Gov. Janet Mills has issued an executive order barring most evictions during the ongoing civil state of emergency. Mills announced the order during a press briefing Thursday, where she also unveiled a rental assistance relief program. Maine now joins several dozen states that have taken action on eviction, but some renters say more protection is needed.

Maine is about halfway through a month-long stay at home order. And to ensure people can continue to stay at home, Governor Mills says she needs to limit evictions.

"The order that I've signed applies to commercial ventures, as well as small businesses, and homes, and rental apartments," she says.

With the exception of tenants who engage in dangerous or illegal conduct, the governor's action halts evictions while Maine is under a civil state of emergency because of the coronavirus pandemic. It also strengthens penalties against landlords who try to evict someone unlawfully. It does not relieve tenants' obligation to pay rent, but it does give them more time.

And a new $5 million Rent Relief Program will offer some help. Under the program, eligible households can receive a one-time payment of up to $500 in rental assistance.

"This program is for Maine people who can no longer pay their rent due to unexpected financial circumstances caused by COVID-19," Mills says.

Jessica Czarnecki of Brunswick is in that category. Czarnecki splits the cost of a $1500-a-month apartment with two other roommates, and has been worried about paying rent ever since two of them were laid off from their jobs at a coffee shop.

"It makes me happy that people can't be evicted right now. I think that's more than needed," Czarnecki says.

At the same time, Czarnecki wishes there was more personal help available. Unemployment barely covers rent and other bills, Czarnecki says, so it has meant dipping into personal savings.

"Paying rent should be halted right now. I think that these sort of like bailout loan situations for giving money to people to pay the landlord, like it's just a bailout for landlords,” says Czarnecki. “I don't think that's something that is actually helping working class people like me."

"It doesn't benefit anyone if we simply let the tenant stop paying rent, which is a rent freeze," says Brit Vitalius, the president of the Southern Maine Landlords' Association.

He says the association has been encouraging landlords not to evict anyone during this public health emergency, and he thinks the governor's Rent Relief Program is an important step.

"That $500 will complement unemployment benefits, the stimulus money that's going out. All of these are designed to keep this housing, the tenants and the landlords, this whole structure in place."

But Craig Saddlemire, who manages an affordable housing cooperative in Lewiston and is part of a coalition of advocacy organizations, says he is worried that the pot of money for the Rent Relief Program isn't enough.

"If it's a $5 million allocation and at $500 a piece, it's going to help about 10,000 households. Which represents maybe a fifth of the 50,000 households that are struggling to pay their housing costs this month, based on national trends."

Saddlemire is encouraged by the temporary assurance provided by Mills' executive order. But he emphasizes that it is only temporary.

"Really the next thing we need to do is look beyond April. We need to look at May, and we need to look beyond even just the state of emergency to the recovery period to ensure that people have stable housing."

Governor Mills says she understands the funding for the Rent Relief Programs isn't enough. But, "It's what we can do right now. We put this together kind of on the fly, found some money for at least a one-time payment towards people's rent."

She says it's not meant to be a long term subsidy, but a public health measure to keep people home right now.

Susan Sharon contributed to this report.

Editors' note: Previous references to Jessica Czarnecki as "she" have been removed to reflect pronoun preferences.

Originally published April 16, 2020 at 5:46 p.m. ET.