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Recent rental relief changes foreshadow bigger challenges for Maine, housing advocates say

Melissa Blodgett and her family have been renting a four-bedroom home in Augusta with help from the state's emergency rental assistance program.
Nicole Ogrysko
Maine Public
Melissa Blodgett and her family have been renting a four-bedroom home in Augusta with help from the state's emergency rental assistance program.

At this time last summer Melissa Blodgett and her family were living in a tent on a Maine campground. Plans to buy land out of state, she said, had fallen through, and their tent was the only option.

"There were just no affordable houses," Blodgett said. "We had a Section 8 voucher, and I just couldn’t find anything the size we needed within their guidelines."

Four of Blodgett's five children live with her, her husband and service dog. She and her husband are both disabled and receive Supplemental Security Income. When it became too cold to camp, the emergency rental assistance program placed them in a hotel for two months, and then helped secure this four-bedroom home.

"We love the house," Blodgett said. "I would love to stay here if we can figure it out with the landlord. My husband and I still want to buy a piece of land. We still want to build our own home. But this could be a very good temporary home for us."

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

The Maine State Housing Authority, which administers the program, said it's been a success. Other housing advocates agree. But recent eligibility changes have left some recipients scrambling to adjust their plans, and housing advocates warn that the uncertainty foreshadows the eventual end of the state's emergency rental assistance program.

Blodgett said she and her landlord agreed to a 16-month lease, because that's how long she had benefits under the emergency rental assistance program.

But last month, the rules changed. Instead of getting 18 months of assistance, Blodgett and her family would be eligible for 12, meaning they might only be able to stay in the house until December.

"It's so scary, as a parent, or as a person who wants to just live, to not have somewhere to live, to not know what you're doing," she said. "To not have an answer."

MaineHousing Director Dan Brennan has said the eligibility changes were made in order to stretch the life of the program through this coming winter.

"It was always created as a temporary program and not one that’s long lasting or that people should be relying on for the long term," Brennan said. "It’s really meant for short-term issues with people affected by the pandemic."

But housing advocates say Mainers have been relying on the program. And while it was designed as a solution for those who lost a job or couldn't work during the pandemic, the program has also become a safety net for families like Blodgett's — at a time when rents and home prices in Maine have become out of reach.

According to a recent study from Harvard University's Joint Center for Housing Studies, 41% of tenants in Maine are "cost-burdened" by rent, meaning they're spending 30% or more of their income on housing. Nearly 20% of Maine tenants spend 50% or more of their income on housing, or, according to the center, are considered "severely cost-burdened."

"I don’t think we in the state of Maine understood or saw how much assistance was going to be needed in the state," said Monica Grady, senior director of energy, housing and community initiatives for the Kennebec Valley Community Action Program, which reviewed nearly applications for emergency rental assistance benefits on the first day they became available.

According to the latest data, 28,479 Maine households have received more than $225 million dollars through emergency rental assistance, leaving roughly one-third of the state's federal dollars left in the program's account.

"What's going to happen... when the funding's gone? I'm not quite sure," Grady said. "I have my thoughts around it, but it's thoughts I don't even want to say out loud."

When the emergency funds do run out eligible families will be able to apply for a Section 8 housing voucher as they always have, but Brennan admits that program has been challenges because of the low supply of affordable units.

And while the effort to build more affordable homes in Maine continues, supply chain issues and workforce shortages have slowed progress, Brennan said. Homes that once took 12 months to build now take 15-to-16 months or more.

"Work is continuing to get done," he said. "New units are continuing to be put online, but it is absolutely a much more difficult environment than we had, say, three to five years ago."

Melissa Blodgett, meanwhile, said she's hoping to work something out with her landlord to stay on after her rental assistance eligibility runs out in December. But if she can't, Blodgett said she's not sure what will happen.

"I don't think that the general public who don't go through these problems understands how terrifying it is, how scary it is, to sit here with my three-year in my lap, wondering if we're going to have a home come Christmas," Blodgett said. "Do I buy a Christmas tree, or are we not doing that because we won't have a home?"

Blodgett said she and her husband have looked into buying a new tent with a wood stove, so her family could at least stay warmer in the winter.