Some of the tenants who live in Donna Belyea’s five rental units in Owls Head told her they’d have troubling coming up with their rent after being laid off, casualties of the stay-at-home order that has essentially shut down the economy.

So the 73-year-old landlord cut the rent in half for three of her five apartments, even though the loss of $1,500 in income hurts her financially. She said she could never resort to evictions, which are temporarily prohibited under the state’s emergency order anyway.

“I don’t think God would allow my conscience to do something like that,” Belyea said. “It’s not their fault there’s a pandemic.”

But now Belyea is among many landlords who are receiving help through the state’s new COVID-19 rental assistance program. In less than two weeks, about 5,000 people have applied for support.

Gov. Janet Mills announced April 16 that the state had set aside $5 million for the COVID-19 Rent Relief Program, which could help at least 10,000 households affected by the pandemic. The program, funded through real estate transfer taxes, provides a one-time payment of as much as $500 to a landlord in exchange for a guarantee they will not evict a tenant during the months the assistance is provided.

The program is designed to help both tenants and landlords. Tenants who pay market-rate rents and have lost income because of the coronavirus apply through MaineHousing’s website. Applications are vetted by one of nine community action groups in the state. If approved, the community group cuts a check to the landlord.

Tenants already receiving housing assistance, such as a Section 8 housing voucher or by living in public housing, are not eligible.

Of the 5,000 people who have applied, 771 households had been approved as of Monday, with average payments ranging from $455 to the $500 maximum. Those figures represent only a fraction of the $5 million available, but officials say there continues to be strong demand for the assistance, especially with many rents coming due at the end of this week.

Dan Brennan, director of MaineHousing, said the early numbers are encouraging. He said the program seems to be covering an average of 60 percent of the rent amounts.

Brennan said the program was intended to provide a bridge payment for people waiting for their stimulus checks or for their unemployment benefits to kick in. It’s unclear what sort of assistance, if any, will be available to tenants in the coming months.

“To some degree, it’s practical to think people will continue to need assistance as we move into the summer, but we don’t know how much,” Brennan said. 

Eighty percent of the funding, or $4 million, was allocated to each community action group based on the percentage of low-income renters living in their areas and unemployment claims. MaineHousing kept the remaining $1 million in case the need exceeds funding in certain areas.

More than 108,000 households are eligible for the program, based on income alone, according to MaineHousing. Monthly income limits for the program range from $3,696 for an individual to $7,108 for a four-or-more-person household.

The Portland-based Opportunity Alliance is administering the program in Cumberland County, where nearly 25,600 households may be eligible, and received the largest allocation, $1.12 million.

Chief Operating Officer Sally Cloutier said the organization has 644 applications being processed that are not represented in MaineHousing’s data, which shows $13,500 in assistance to 27 tenants. She said the organization is adding staff to help process the applications.

Only two people were processing applications until this week, when an additional person was added, Cloutier said. Two more workers will be added by week’s end.

“The need is enormous,” she said. “There are a ton of people unemployed. They’re scared. They don’t see an end in sight. People are reaching out and trying to take care of their families as best as they can.”

Jennifer Giosia, director of housing and energy services at Penquis, a community action program serving Penobscot, Piscataquis and Knox counties, said her agency is getting inquiries from many self-employed people who have not been able to apply for unemployment benefits.

The state says it will be able to file those claims beginning Friday. 

“I have directly talked with 15 people in the last two days that are in that situation,” Giosia said. “There’s absolutely no income coming in their homes.”

As of Monday, Penquis, which received roughly $609,500 from the state, had approved 200 applications totaling $94,835 in aid. Giosia said many of those applications were from Bangor, the retail hub for the area.

Lewiston-based Community Concepts Inc., which received $500,000, administers the program for Androscoggin and Oxford counties. That group has six staff members processing applications and has preliminarily approved 291 requests totaling $145,500. 

Sandy Albert, director of housing services, said the organization is seeing a lot of first-time clients, so staff is also coordinating additional wraparound services, like food pantries, for families who are not used asking for help.

“I’m glad the state took this approach to help landlords and tenants, even if it’s a supplemental short-term program,” Albert said. “It’s an outside-of-the-box way to help tenants who can’t pay their rents.”

Melanie Dube, a landlord being helped by Community Concepts, manages 34 mobile home rentals in Sabattus, Litchfield and Wales.

Dube sent letters informing all of her tenants about the state assistance program. So far, two of her tenants have received help and a third has applied.

While some housing advocates have advocated for rent forgiveness or a rent strike, Dube thinks the state is taking the right approach by creating a program that helps both tenants and landlords, who also have mortgages and other bills to pay.

“A lot of them got laid off because of this. They have kids to support and bills to pay. They’re just getting behind,” Dube said. “That’s definitely helped us pay our bills. All of our tenants deserve it. They work hard and they need the help.”

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