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Maine's emergency rent relief program on pause due to dwindling funds, more demand

A for rent sign in Palo Alto, California. Across the country rents are on the rise, in part due to a historic shortage of homes either to rent or buy.
A for rent sign in Palo Alto, California. Across the country rents are on the rise, in part due to a historic shortage of homes either to rent or buy.

MaineHousing is no longer accepting new applications for its emergency rental assistance program, as it awaits word on its request to the federal government for more funding.

Agency officials say pausing the program will also give them time to work through the backlog of 11,000 pending applications and requests.

The program was designed to distribute federal funds to people who needed help paying their rent or utility bills during the pandemic. It also placed unhoused Mainers in hotel and motel rooms.

Despite efforts to curb the outflow of funds, the pace at which MaineHousing was spending for the program had recently accelerated, in some cases by as much as $2 million more a week, said agency spokesman Scott Thistle.

Applications for assistance had increased, and the cost of rents and hotel rates have also gone up.

MaineHousing tightened the eligibility requirements for the emergency rental assistance program over the summer, with the hope of extending its lifespan through December. It also capped reimbursement for hotels and motels at the rates set by the General Services Administration, a federal agency.

"The GSA rate in the summertime for Maine is a higher rate than what it would be typically," Thistle said. "They go up in the summer because of tourism, and so efforts that we made to slow down the spending rate of the program didn't work the way we intended."

The program started last March and has paid $275 million dollars to nearly 34,000 Maine households.

"We understand this pause is going to cause pain for households, and we recognize that," Thistle said. "This was a temporary program. It was funded with one-time monies from Congress. It was meant as an emergency measure to help people get through the most difficult parts of the pandemic. It was never intended to be a long-term solution to our affordable housing crisis or a permanent rental assistance program. For MaineHousing to be responsible, we need to not spend money we're not sure we have."

The emergency rental assistance program isn't ending, and Mainers who have already been approved for benefits will continue to receive them until their eligibility window closes.

Still, the community action agencies who helped Mainers apply for the program say it feels like the end is near.

The Opportunity Alliance, the community action agency that serves Cumberland County, has helped thousands of people apply for help with their rental payments or utility bills.

"A lot of people have placed into apartments with our assistance, and we worry whether they'll be able to afford that rent after our program ends," said Mary Cook, a program director for emergency rental assistance for the Opportunity Alliance.

In addition, the Opportunity Alliance currently has 370 clients staying in a hotel or motel through the rental relief program.

"We have very many concerns for the people who will be displaced from the hotels when the program ends," Cook said. "We don't know what the timeline will look like. That could be November or it could be December. But either way it very much feels like if we don't get the additional funding from the US Treasury that there will be hundreds of people across the state of Maine displaced from the hotels that they are in under ERA assistance."