• Jessica Hardwick

Advocates Demand Permanent Housing Solutions Beyond May

Released 4pm, Thursday, April 16th, 2020 by Raise Op-Housing Cooperative

In light of the ongoing struggles to secure shelter for thousands of Maine people, housing advocates are calling for state leaders to commit to bold and permanent solutions to guarantee a safe and stable home for every person beyond May. One month since Maine’s state of emergency was declared, hundreds of thousands of people in Maine are still uncertain and anxious about whether they can afford a safe place to live during and beyond COVID-19.  

“The Governor’s announcement today regarding evictions and rental assistance is a welcome one, and should provide at least temporary assurance to many people in Maine,” said Craig Saddlemire, of the Raise-Op Housing Cooperative.  “But these efforts still leave too many people with no relief and we need to keep all people in stable housing in May and beyond, and that will take continued actions by all of our elected officials.”

While as much as one-third of the nation was unable to pay their rent on April 1st, May is expected to be even harder. Despite good faith efforts by Maine’s elected leaders, the latest solutions offer only limited and temporary relief.  The new $5 million rent assistance program represents just 0.4% of Maine’s allocation from the Cares Act. It could help as many as 10,000 households in Maine, which is likely just 20% of the Maine households struggling to pay rent this month, based on national trends.  It provides only partial rental assistance to applicants, up to $500. They will still be on the hook for the rest, and the terms of accepting the payment only require the landlord to put off eviction for April or May, whichever month the payment is used. The terms do not address non-payments for upcoming months.

“The patchwork of assistance programs we are forced to navigate to survive in this moment exposes the severe weakness of our public safety net which we are now rushing to rebuild long after it was needed,” said Ben Martineau of Homeless Voices for Justice.  Applications for unemployment insurance are backlogged, housing assistance waitlists are growing, and federal stimulus checks are not reaching many of the poorest households who need them most.  

Edier Ramírez, member of Presente! Maine, expressed concerns about the limits of the assistance program.  “The Latinx community is in and has been in crisis long before COVID-19,” explained Edier. “Now we are being asked to stay home, but most of us have no idea how we’ll pay the rent. There are already confirmed cases of coronavirus in our community, and we live and work in such close quarters with one another, that I fear what will happen if there is no relief for us and people decide to go back to work before it is safe. We need full cancellation of rent now to safely quarantine at home.” 

This crisis also exposes the weakness of our government to regulate exploitative practices that take advantage of people in vulnerable situations.  For many, threats of eviction and new debt loom as soon as the emergency is over and courts reopen. Some landlords have increased rent since the emergency began, capturing the benefit of rental assistance programs for themselves rather than their tenants.

Today’s executive order does not address the issue of rent increases and new penalties for late payments on rent and mortgages.  “Allowing landlords to raise rent on their tenants in this crisis makes their tenants effectively a pass-through for landlords to benefit from those assistance programs, and that’s just wrong. Cancelling rent during this crisis is the best way to ensure people have the relief they need to stay in their home,” said Meaghan LaSala, Southern Maine Workers Center.

During the time it takes to recover from this crisis, people should not be concerned with eviction. That’s why we still need a complete eviction moratorium to go into effect and to last until 90 days after the state emergency is over” said Tina Malcolmson, People’s Housing Coalition of Portland, who helped collect over 1,800 signatures in Maine calling for the Governor to take such actions.  But the list of demands doesn’t end there. The coalition of housing advocates are also calling for a comprehensive list of measures that are explained further in their proposal, Homes for All to Safely Quarantine, available at www.raiseop.com/homesforall.  

Bruce Noddin, Director, Maine Prisoner Re-Entry Network, is concerned that many existing homes are not being made available to those in need.   "Housing is at critical mass,” he explained. “We need the Governor to exercise her emergency powers, to open up and fund emergency housing initiatives for folks in re-entry, recovery and homelessness. Non-congregate housing; hotels, motels, state facilities, etc. must be utilized, while providing mental health, substance use and basic needs support."  

Residential tenants aren’t the only ones struggling to access the assistance programs.  Half of small business owners were not able to pay their rent in April either. We’ve also seen hedge funds and major corporations competing for grants and loans intended to help small businesses in need. Ilma Lopez, co-owner of Portland restaurants Chaval and Piccolo said, “I want to thank the governor and her team for all their effort. Her announcement was a good first step, but we need a rent freeze to ensure that more people don’t lose their homes and we small business owners don’t lose the businesses that employ them. Small businesses are hurting and our teams are hurting.”

The patchwork of responses among creditors has also created confusion for homeowners, small businesses, and landlords.  Some lenders are not waiving interest for deferred payments, and others are requiring full payment after 90 days. “Landlords don't want their tenants to have to choose between paying the rent and caring for their families,” said Amy Smith, President of Healthy Homeworks & Lewiston landlord.  “To pass on flexibility to tenants, mortgage companies and banks need to give true forbearance to owners of rental properties. It's not OK for banks to say ‘you don't need to pay for the next 3 months, but in the 4th month you have to make 4 full payments.’ Instead lenders should suspend payments and add them to the end of the loan.”  

“In order for Maine to fully recover from this crisis, we need a stable foundation from which to rebuild our economy, and that begins with the assurance of adequate, permanently affordable housing” said Saddlemire.  “Maine leaders must invest in permanent shelters, transitional and supportive housing for the over 2,000 people living without homes in Maine. We must create a state housing assistance program that covers all those applicants on waiting lists for public housing assistance. We must strengthen our regulatory power and end housing discrimination practices carried out through restrictive zoning and lease requirements. And we cannot expect our largest service centers to solve all of Maine’s housing needs on their own.“

He added, “The weakness of our existing housing system has made our communities vulnerable and unprepared to respond to this crisis, and will continue to harm our recovery.  It’s time we guarantee homes for all.”

Organizations Endorsing the Homes for All to Safely Quarantine Proposal: Choose Yourself, Cooperative Development Institute, Healthy Homeworks, Homeless Advocacy For All, Homeless Voices for Justice, Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project, Island Housing Trust, Land In Common, Maine Democratic Socialists of America, Maine Equal Justice, Maine Immigrant Housing Coalition, Maine People's Alliance, Maine Poor People’s Campaign, Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition, Maine Prisoner Re-Entry Network, Mano en Mano, Monhegan Island Sustainable Community Association, People's Housing Coalition of Portland, Portland Buy Local, Presente! Maine, Raise-Op Housing Cooperative, Southern Maine Workers Center, Up With Community.

Homes for All Proposal to Safely Quarantine available at www.raiseop.com/homesforall

Contact: Craig Saddlemire, Manager, Raise-Op Housing Cooperative 

raiseop207@gmail.com     w: 207-956-0508     h: 207-344-3028

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