Portland has created a $500,000 fund to help residents who are falling behind on their rent payments because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Portland City Council approved the program in May, and city officials said it will get underway this month. It will use federal funding to provide up to $2,250 per household – $750 a month in rent assistance for as many as three months – to individuals and families who have lost income because of the pandemic.

The program also offers up to $250 to help pay utility bills issued during the pandemic, said Mary Davis, division director for the city’s Housing and Community Development program.

The money comes from federal funding provided under the CARES Act, a major coronavirus relief package passed by Congress this spring. The legislation resulted in Portland receiving $1.4 million for Community Development Block Grant programs aimed at helping those affected by the pandemic.

Davis said the city will use the rest of the block grant money to help fund programs that provide food assistance, and to Portland’s Parks Department to help make summer programs more affordable.

The rent assistance funds are available to residents whose income doesn’t exceed 80 percent of the region’s median income, Davis said. For a family of four, she said, that means a household income of no more than $78,500.

She said payments will be made directly to landlords, and the city will check to make sure a renter was current on payments before the pandemic so the money isn’t used to pay past-due amounts from before the outbreak had a major economic impact.

The city said examples of those who qualify include city residents who were laid off, had their place of employment close, experienced a reduction in hours at work, had to stay home to care for children because their day care or school closed, are medically compromised or are caring for someone who is medically compromised.

Applicants must provide documentation of recent income, including unemployment compensation or money from any other government program created in response to the pandemic.

The city started accepting applications this week, Davis said. Applications, rules and other details are available online at portlandmaine.gov and through Opportunity Alliance by calling 553-5937, option 1.

In addition to the city program, the state has a rent assistance program that provides a one-time payment of $500 to landlords on behalf of a struggling tenant as long as the landlord agrees not to take any eviction action against the tenant for the month in which the payment was applied.

Gov. Janet Mills issued a statewide executive order in April that prevents immediate evictions except in cases in which a tenant is found to have engaged in illegal or dangerous conduct.

That executive order is set to lapse 30 days after Maine’s pandemic state of emergency order expires. The state of emergency is set to expire Friday, and Mills is expected to announce this week whether it will be extended.

A separate court order that bans most hearings, including those for evictions, could end as soon as Aug. 3, and officials are worried the order’s expiration could result in landlords rushing to evict tenants who have fallen behind on rent during the pandemic.

While housing officials hope to avoid a rush of evictions because they want to avoid an increase in homelessness, landlords say some tenants have been taking advantage of the situation to avoid paying rent. Accordingly, some landlords have said they are eager to evict nonpaying tenants.

But some property owners also have said they are concerned the Maine court system will be flooded with eviction-related hearings, which could prevent landlords from evicting certain tenants for many more months.

Unemployment has skyrocketed in Maine and across the United States as a result of stay-at-home orders that forced many public-facing businesses to close or drastically reduce their operations this spring. The hardest-hit sectors of Maine’s economy include food service, lodging, entertainment and recreation, while other industries have suffered smaller losses, including manufacturing, retail, and health care and social assistance.

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