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State agency sets new limits on rent relief program in hopes of extending it through the winter

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Troy R. Bennett
/
Bangor Daily News
New rules from the Maine State Housing Authority are designed to extend the life of the state's $350 million federally funded pandemic rent relief program.

The Maine State Housing Authority is placing new limits on eligibility for rental assistance funds in hopes of extending the program's lifespan through the winter.

The emergency rental assistance program was created last year to distribute more than $350 million from the federal government to assist people with rent and utilities during the pandemic.

But MaineHousing Director Dan Brennan said that funding could soon run out, so the agency is putting in new limits, including a cap on reimbursement rates for hotel and motel rooms, and tightened eligibility to residents earning up to 50 percent of the area median income. The agency is also reducing the length that someone can receive benefits, from 18 months to 12.

"I would hate to think if, say, in October, we ran out of money in this program, and said, 'Boy we should have made changes in this program back in the Spring.' And that's what we're trying to do now, to get us through another winter for people who need it," Brennan said.

The program has paid out more than $189 million to assist residents so far. But some organizations worry about the effects of the changes in the short term.

Claude Rwaganje is the executive director of ProsperityMaine, which has worked with clients to submit more than a thousand program applications. Rwaganje said that while he appreciates efforts to extend the funding, he worries that the new limits on hotel rates could prompt some to stop accepting his clients.

"What are we going to do with them, if many of the hotels start deciding not to take the new rates?" Rwaganje said.

Brennan acknowledged that the changes that go into effect on June 1st would create some challenges, but will help stretch the dollars through the next heating season. He said that about a thousand households are currently using the program to stay in hotels or motels, and tens of thousands of households have used it to assist with housing since it launched.