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With Eviction Moratorium Set To Expire, Maine Advocates Work to Connect Renters with Legal Aid

FILE - In this May 20, 2020, file photo, signs that read "No Job No Rent" hang from the windows of an apartment building during the coronavirus pandemic in Northwest Washington D.C.. The pandemic has shut housing courts and prompted authorities around the U.S. to initiate policies protecting renters from eviction.
Andrew Harnik
FILE - In this May 20, 2020, file photo, signs that read "No Job No Rent" hang from the windows of an apartment building during the coronavirus pandemic in Northwest Washington D.C.. The pandemic has shut housing courts and prompted authorities around the U.S. to initiate policies protecting renters from eviction.

Between shutdowns, business closures and the economic uncertainty of the past year, many renters across the country have struggled to keep up with payments, putting them at risk of eviction.

A recently released report from the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition finds that in some cities in Maine, evictions are disproportionately affecting communities of color — and many tenants don't have legal assistance to help them in eviction proceedings.

The new findings come at a pivotal moment for many renters. Rental relief and legal aid for tenants is becoming more widely available. Yet a federal eviction moratorium could expire in just a few weeks. For more, Maine Public News Producer Robbie Feinberg spoke with Greg Payne of the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition, and Chet Randall, the deputy director of Pine Tree Legal Assistance.

Feinberg: Greg, your organization recently released this report specifically looking at evictions in Maine over the past year, year and a half, and which places and people are being disproportionately impacted by evictions. Can you take us through some of the biggest takeaways from that report?

Greg Payne: We went to courts in various parts of the state and gathered about 2,300 eviction files. And when we pulled all of that information, it obviously helped us understand a whole lot more about evictions than we understood before.

But certainly one of the things that jumped off the page was this very wide gap in access to legal counsel for the two parties in eviction cases. And we found that landlords have an attorney about 80% of the time, and tenants have an attorney only about 20% of the time. And that was a bigger disparity than we thought.

But when we dug further into it, we were especially amazed to discover that tenants are 85% more likely to avoid an eviction when they do have an attorney. And so if the whole point of the entire exercise is to understand how we can prevent evictions, that's better for everybody -- when it's better for landlords, it's better for tenants, it's better for society -- if we can avoid evictions.

That information helped us to understand that perhaps one of the single best ways we could reduce evictions in Maine in the future was by closing this disparity in legal representation, and making sure that that playing field is more even. That is one of the things that kind of jumped to the front of our advocacy on this.

And Chet, what are the real repercussions for renters when they don't have legal help, and are at serious risk of eviction?

Chet Randall: It has a couple of different effects, and a couple of them were well identified by MAHC. And one of them is that when a judgment is entered against a tenant, it makes it more difficult for the tenant to access future housing, because it becomes part of their tenant record. And landlords are reluctant to lease an apartment to tenants who have had a judgment of eviction in the past. But it has other implications that are well studied: the requirement with tenants being forced to move, the loss of job location, that affects access to health care, access to education for children.

Payne: I think it's important to say, it's not always the case that the attorneys at Pine Tree or other legal services organizations succeed in keeping somebody in their current home. That isn't always the outcome. But sometimes it is. But one of the things they also do is help prevent that eviction judgment from then hounding that household for years and years and years. Because as Chet said, once you have an eviction judgment on your record, that reverberates for years for that family trying to find their next place to live.

So there was this recently announced partnership between MaineHousing and Pine Tree Legal that's intended to assist more renters with obtaining legal counsel and rental assistance. Chet, how will this partnership work? And what could it mean in terms of preventing evictions?

Randall: So the hope here going forward is that we're going to be able to obtain the resources through an agreement with MaineHousing to dramatically reduce that gap between tenants who have representation - about 20% of time, and landlords have representation by 80% of the time. Then through our agreement with MaineHousing, we'll be able to be more involved and more active in the courts and assisting tenants, which I want to point out, as Greg said, that doesn't always mean that the tenants get to stay. But what it does almost always mean is that there's a meaningful impact for both the tenants and landlords and how the process proceeds.

So all of this is coming out as the federal eviction moratorium could be expiring in just a few weeks. How worried are you both about what that could mean for renters in the weeks and months ahead? Could we see a big wave of evictions?

Payne: I am worried. I do think that there's good reason to believe that evictions are going to increase significantly. I think that we're also concerned about the fact that in some parts of the state applications for rent relief, you know, are fairly backlogged. So what we're really afraid of is landlords might lose patience in waiting for those rent relief checks to show up.

And when they lose patience, they may take action in eviction court. And that's part of why we're so pleased with the timing of the announcement of this incredible partnership between Pine Tree Legal Assistance and MaineHousing. So that if tenants in fact start receiving more eviction notices, in these weeks ahead, as the moratorium wears off, they are much more likely now to have the benefit of counsel to navigate that process. And that's important and really impactful.

And this announcement, it's only one potential change that has raised. There are other bills in the legislature that have been floated to address housing issues in the state. Are there certain pieces of legislation that you all are hoping will get passed that could help alleviate some of these issues in the months ahead?

Payne: Certainly on the same specific topic of evictions, we're very happy to see that LD 1508 is probably hours away from being enacted and sent to the governor's desk. [LD 1508 was passed by both the state House and Senate earlier this week and is now headed to the governor's desk.]

At this point, what that bill does is require that when landlords file an eviction complaint, that attached to that complaint, a plain language notice for the tenant that helps them understand the eviction process that they're about to be a part of. It helps them understand how to reach out for rent relief, it helps them understand how to reach out for legal help. The effort here, more than anything, is to try to prevent the preventable evictions.

Knowing that we probably can't prevent all evictions, there are some that we do think that can be prevented. And if that includes by just helping make sure tenants know that rent relief might be available for them. If that can make the difference in solving the problem and keeping somebody from having to leave their home. That's good, not just for the tenant. It's really good for the landlord too.

And we think that's just one more step in helping to avoid the avoidable evictions.

Click here for more rental assistance resources for Maine Housing.

And here is the new report from the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition: