What is your service area?
I work with clients throughout Penobscot, Piscataquis, and Waldo counties. I’m based in Bangor, but I represent clients in courts as far north as Lincoln and Millinocket, south to Belfast, and west to Dover-Foxcroft and Newport.
How did all the CDC eviction moratorium changes impact Pine Tree clients?
Starting in the Summer of 2020, several immediate changes were made on Federal, State, and Local levels to address the impact of the pandemic on renters. There was a period of trying to sort through the new rules to find out what protections were in place for each tenant’s circumstances.
One unfortunate effect of all the changes was a lot of confusion. There was a great deal of misinformation going around, and each household needed to have their individual circumstances taken into account to determine what protections and resources might be available. None of the protections applied to every tenant or household.
What’s happening with evictions now that the moratorium is no longer in place?
Just as before, evictions are happening. They seem to be rising, and I’ve noticed that it has become harder and harder to have both sides work together to come to an agreement. There is no way to put off an eviction hearing now that the moratorium is no longer in place, even if the only cause for the eviction is back rent. The timeline to get assistance before the eviction hearing is also shorter now that the State of Emergency has ended, so we’re encouraging all tenants who are behind on rent to apply for Emergency Rental Assistance.
In the past year, what has Pine Tree done to increase outreach?
Pine Tree works with the Maine Housing Counselors’ Network, a team of members around the State, based at the Community Assistance Agencies. Housing Counselors are trained to help renters understand the eviction and court process in addition to other tenants’ rights. When a tenant is behind on rent, dealing with a problem in their rental housing, or facing eviction, housing counselors can help make a plan to deal with those issues. Steps might include connecting the tenants with legal services at PTLA, or helping the household locate and apply for assistance that they are eligible for.
PTLA staff and Rental Housing Counselors meet every other week to discuss current issues in rental housing, legal rights and protections, and to share information about resources and concerns. Through these meetings, we try to identify people and places where legal services are needed, and to bring shared concerns to the Maine Housing Authority and other leaders and stakeholders.
How has Emergency Rental Assistance impacted Pine Tree clients?
Money is being distributed to every state as part of an effort to prevent mass evictions throughout the country. This money is designated for renters who fell behind on payments during the COVID-19 Pandemic. The requirements to receive money are flexible, and anyone who is struggling to keep up with rent or utility payments should apply.
If you are eligible, you could receive up to 18 months’ of rent through the program, so we encourage anyone who has concerns about unpaid rent to apply and see if they are eligible.
In addition to the ERA program that directly puts money towards unpaid rent, money has also been designated to provide support for tenants including legal aid. With this grant, PTLA has been able hire new staff, including lawyers who can represent tenants in eviction cases. Legal aid can assist tenants in many ways; from advising clients about their rights and options to representing clients in court. We also work closely with the Community Assistance Programs to help clients access Emergency Rental Assistance and work through questions or problems with applications.
What most concerns you about evictions in Maine right now?
The timing. If a tenant-at-will (someone without a specific lease term) is behind on rent, the landlord can give them a 7 Day Notice. If the tenant can pay their back rent within 7 Days, the Notice is cancelled. However, seven days is not enough time for most people to apply for ERA and have the funds distributed to their landlord. If the rent is not paid in the 7 Days, then the landlord can take the tenant to court. If a landlord gives a tenant an eviction notice for a reason besides unpaid rent, like a No-Cause notice or a rule violation, then ERA might not help stop the eviction.
The #1 issue we hear from housing counselors, tenants, and other advocates is that there is nowhere to go if a household is evicted. It seems absolutely impossible to find available, affordable rental units throughout the state, even for households that have been looking for 5, 6, 12 months. Properties are being sold at unheard of speeds, tenants are being evicted by property owners and buyers, and those units are not being re-rented at affordable rates.
What stands out to you from Pine Tree’s response to this crisis over the past few months?
I’m a firm believer that there are not “good tenants” and “bad tenants,” although you will hear a lot about the latter if you spend time in eviction court. Every eviction creates instability, and that disruption impacts all of us. The “Eviction Crisis” is not just the displacement of individual families, but also the ripple effect of those catastrophic events on communities throughout Maine. Alternatively, safe, affordable, and stable housing improves access to education, employment, nutrition, and economic mobility – positive effects that lift neighborhoods and communities.
Advocates at Pine Tree know how important housing is for each one of our clients, and our communities at large. What stands out to me about this work is our commitment to advocating not only for “good tenants” in bad situations, but every tenant we possibly can.
“Losing a home sends families to shelters, abandoned houses, and the street. It invites depression and illness, compels families to move into degrading housing in dangerous neighborhoods, uproots communities, and harms children. Eviction reveals people’s vulnerability and desperation, as well as their ingenuity and guts.” Desmond, M. Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, 2016.