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Maine municipalities worry as rental relief program nears its final days

Municipalities across Maine are worried about the end of the emergency rental assistance program, which is nearing its final days.

The program was designed to distribute federal relief money to people who needed help paying their rent or utility bills during the pandemic. It also placed unhoused Mainers in hotel and motel rooms. MaineHousing paused the program for new applicants last month amid rising demand for help and dwindling funds.

It's difficult to pinpoint an exact end date for the rental relief program, as community action agencies all have different amounts of funds remaining, said MaineHousing Director Dan Brennan.

But as of last week his agency had about $13 million dollars left to distribute to community action agencies, who are paying benefits to the program's recipients.

"We did request more money from the federal government back in July, and we learned a few weeks ago that we were not going to receive any," Brennan said. "So we're in the position now where we need to move toward closing the program."

Municipalities have heard that rental assistance funds will dry up completely near the end of November, and towns are worried that they will become flooded with applications for general assistance.

"[For] a number of the people who are about to become unhoused — potentially evicted because they don't have a replacement program — their only option is to apply for general assistance," said Rebecca Graham of the Maine Municipal Association. "And they may not be able to meet those standards."

The rental relief program had higher income limits compared to general assistance, meaning some Mainers won't qualify, Graham said.

A special commission that is studying housing opportunities in Maine will recommend that the state should create its own rental assistance program to replace the one that is ending.