With Maine courts hearing nearly no cases that would result in evictions and an order from Gov. Janet Mills that prevents most evictions during the coronavirus pandemic, landlords and housing officials are concerned there could be a flood of evictions when those restrictions are lifted.

The ban on most court hearings that would result in evictions could end as soon as Aug. 3, under the courts’ reopening plan.

Officials are concerned there could then be a rush of evictions as tenants, unable to pay rent due to losing their jobs during the pandemic, are taken to court to be evicted.

Landlords, meanwhile, are also concerned about the potential for many evictions, but for different reasons.

While housing officials hope to avoid a rush of evictions because they want to keep people housed, landlords say some tenants have been taking advantage of the situation to avoid paying rent. Accordingly, some landlords said they look forward to evicting nonpaying tenants.

But property owners said they are concerned the court system will be flooded with eviction-related hearings, preventing landlords from evicting certain tenants for many more months.

Landlords say they have bills and mortgages to pay and they have been hit hard financially by COVID-19, with some tenants unable or unwilling to pay rent. And there is little financial assistance available to landlords.

All of these factors, landlords said, make it hard for them to keep their rental businesses going.

“We still have property taxes to pay, insurance, fuel, utilities, repairs, mortgages. If we’re not collecting rent, these things can’t be taken care of and it puts properties in jeopardy,” said Royce Watson, a real estate agent and landlord with about 100 rental units in the Augusta-Gardiner area. “And there’s really no direct assistance to landlords. If it goes on much longer, there’s only so long landlords can hold out.”

Watson said he has six tenants who, were it not for the restrictions, would have been evicted by now because they are not paying their rent.

Officials who work to keep tenants from losing their housing are also concerned about a potential flood of evictions in August.

Maureen Boston, a lawyer and an intake manager for Pine Tree Legal Assistance, which assists low-income Mainers with legal issues, including evictions, said since mid-March, when awareness of the pandemic grew, the state courts would have typically heard up to 2,000 eviction-related cases under normal circumstances. It is likely, therefore, that thousands of eviction cases await decisions in the courts.

Boston said the moratorium on evictions likely helped many tenants suffering financial hardships due to the pandemic, especially in the period after they lost their income but before they could secure unemployment benefits or federal stimulus funds. She said she is worried tenants still unable to pay their rent will suffer severe consequences when the courts resume hearing eviction cases.

Since March 16, Boston said, Pine Tree workers have talked to 371 Maine households about evictions. She said Pine Tree has received many telephone calls over the past four months about evictions and what some tenants claim are illegal evictions.

She said some landlords have threatened to lockout tenants. She said Pine Tree has had success getting tenants back into their apartments, either by talking to landlords or obtaining emergency court orders.

“We anticipate that there will be a large number of eviction cases to be heard once the courts reopen to eviction hearings on Aug. 3,” Boston said. “We are working on preparing ourselves for the deluge, and plan to be as present as possible in Maine’s eviction courts in order to help prevent a large wave of homelessness.”

Boston said Pine Tree is also concerned about how eviction-related hearings will be done. In the past, she said, 60 or more eviction cases were held within three or four hours, forcing numerous people — lawyers, tenants, landlords, judges, court workers and others —into a courtroom together, which would conflict with today’s social-distancing guidelines.

Boston said Pine Tree points people at risk of losing their housing to resources that can help them secure an income, so they can pay rent. She said trying to find a new place to live during the pandemic is difficult because it is hard to meet with landlords.

One source of help during the pandemic has been MaineHousing which, in a partnership with the state, has offered $500 in one-time rent assistance to tenants. The money is paid directly to landlords.

Rep. Donna Doore, D-Augusta, bottom left, signals that she can’t hear testimony from Daniel Brennan, director of MaineHousing, at start of a Labor and Housing committee hearing June 4 at the State House in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

Daniel Brennan, director of MaineHousing, said the housing authority put $5 million into the program, hoping the money could help serve as a bridge for people who lost their jobs during the pandemic.

Brennan said the $500 does not cover a month’s rent for most tenants, but it still helps. He said MaineHousing is also working with state Department of Economic and Community Development officials to seek federal approval to provide more rental assistance in Maine.

As of July 1, the rental-assistance program had received nearly 13,000 applications and paid out about $3.1 million in rent relief.

Brennan said he hoped landlords would be flexible and work with their tenants who cannot pay their rent during the pandemic. He recommended landlords seek approval from mortgage lenders to delay mortgage payments.

“We feel for landlords that are in a pinch, as well,” Brennan said. “The pandemic — nobody wished that on anybody. Everybody is a victim of the pandemic. We all need to work together.”

Brennan said MaineHousing officials are talking with the Mills administration, advocates for tenants, landlord associations and the courts about ways to stave off evictions.

He said a survey showed fewer people than expected have been unable to pay their rents during the pandemic, and federal stimulus funding was likely a big factor in that positive sign.

Watson said a catch in the MaineHousing rental-relief program is that tenants must apply for the $500 for their landlords to get the money. He said he has had only two tenants apply for the funds.

Watson said some tenants are not concerned with getting caught up on their rent. Instead, he said, they are likely to use financial assistance to help pay security deposits and rent for new apartments with different landlords, instead of paying their back rent.

“From a tenant’s standpoint, if they know they owe five months’ rent, some of them aren’t going to pay — even if they have the money,” Watson said. “There’s no incentive there.”

Watson said he has enough rental units that he should be able to get through the current situation, but some landlords with fewer units could be at risk of losing their buildings. That, he warned, could exacerbate Maine’s shortage of rental housing.

Boston said she hoped a stakeholders group will meet soon to consider how the courts should resume eviction-related proceedings in August.

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