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Advocates Say Maine Renters Are Still Vulnerable, Even As Evictions Fall During Pandemic

Associated Press
A protester holds up an eviction-related sign in Washington, D.C. The coronavirus rescue package just passed in Congress sets aside $25 billion for rental assistance and extends a CDC order aimed at preventing evictions.

A new report finds that, through last November, evictions fell by 40 percent in Maine compared to past years — as a federal moratorium and other protections have helped to keep renters in their homes during the pandemic, although advocates caution that many tenants are still falling behind and are in need of more rental relief. 

Sixty-one-year-old Martin Murray lives in a small studio apartment in an old, converted convent in Portland. To afford the rent, he relies on his monthly social security checks and his income from a part-time job working at visitors' centers in the city — which closed when the pandemic began.

"Once that went away, it was absolutely, positively, almost impossible to meet all my demands every month. I was praying, god forbid, my car doesn't break down. I can't remember the last time I had to go clothes shopping or something like that. I couldn't afford it," Murray says. 

Murray says unemployment benefits and a few months of rental assistance from a state program have helped. But he's still scraping by. Murray says he's had to skip or delay bills on expenses such as car repairs in order to make the rent. 

"You're continuing to juggle and to borrow and to scrimp and to scrape and take every means possible," he says.

As Greg Payne, director of the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition, puts it, "People are terrified of losing their homes during a pandemic."

Payne's group recently released a report looking at evictions and housing instability across the state. The good news, Payne says, is that through November, evictions were down by about 40 percent last year as compared to previous years, thanks to a federal eviction moratorium and a state rental assistance program.

But Payne says the pandemic has still drastically affected renters' finances. His organization found that more than half of those interviewed had less income than before the pandemic and were now carrying more debt.

"It really is likely to create some long-term problems for those folks if they have no cushion, larger debt, other bills that are coming due," Payne says. "So all those things are happening. And it's more than, obviously, just about paying this month's rent. It's avoiding being in a financial hole that's going to haunt them for years to come."

And despite the federal moratorium on evictions, Pine Tree Legal Managing Attorney Katie McGovern says she's seen landlords get around those new rules. McGovern says instead of evicting tenants for non-payment of rent, more landlords are pursuing so-called "no-cause" evictions instead, which are not explicitly prohibited in the federal moratorium.

"I think that, in some cases, landlords are using no-cause evictions instead of non-payment evictions, in order to avoid the eviction moratorium for non-payment cases," McGovern says. 

Last April, the Mills Administration launched a rental relief program which had been repeatedly extended through the end of last year.

MaineHousing spokesperson Cara Courchesne says her agency expects to launch another version in the near future using $200 million from the federal pandemic relief bill passed late last year. Courchesne says the program will help to cover back rent during the pandemic, and will also pay for up to three months going forward.

"We're going to be able to cover full rent moving forward, and it's also going to get everybody, who applies for the program, who qualifies, caught up with back rent," Courchesne says. "It also helps landlords, it makes them whole, around if they need to pay mortgages or taxes on the property."

Advocates are also calling on state lawmakers to provide more new money for lawyers to represent renters facing the threat of eviction.