Brandon Marshall of South Portland is a gig worker and author who tried to get rental assistance but gave up after two months of waiting and being unable to get any assurance that he would be granted relief. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Martin Murray lost his job working in a visitor information booth in Portland when the pandemic hit in March.

The part-time job and his Social Security income covered the $700 a month rent for his studio apartment on Stevens Avenue and helped keep bills paid and food in the cupboard.

After nearly exhausting his savings and relying on food pantries, the 61-year-old applied for rent relief through the Opportunity Alliance, one of the statewide community action programs charged with processing the relief applications and getting the rent money out the door. He received a rent payment for October, but after that he went months without hearing back about his applications for November and December.

“I was calling every other day,” Murray said, adding that he couldn’t leave messages because the voicemail was full. “November turned into December. December turned into January. And I had no idea if my rents were paid. I just kept calling and calling and calling.”

Murray’s experience highlights the fear and frustration among a growing number of cash-strapped renters, as well as the structural challenges facing the state and nonprofit community action programs as they prepare to administer another round of federal rent relief funding.

And nearly a year into the pandemic, more Mainers are falling behind on rent payments, burning through their savings and skipping bills in order to stay housed, according to a recent report by the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition.

Murray said he eventually got through and was assured his application would be approved, providing relief for the time being. But Brandon Marshall, a 52-year-old gig worker and author who lives in the Brick Hill area of South Portland, was not so lucky.

Marshall applied for rental assistance in November, as his delivery work dried up and after relying on his wife’s income, his credit cards, savings account and reduced spending on food and other expenses to make ends meet. When he got through to the processing agency, he couldn’t get any assurance that his rent would be covered or even when a decision would be made because of a backlog of applications.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty when that happens and it carries a lot of adverse effects and a lot of negative feelings, especially when you have kids at home,” Marshall said. “Kids have needs. You got to have food. You got to have clothing. You have to pay your power bills.”

Marshall said the uncertainty eventually made him give up on the rental program.

“Trying to balance a car payment and make sure you have enough groceries and not have to worry about rent, that’s when it came to the point where we had to find another way to come up with another solution and not wait to find out if they were going to pay our rent,” he said. “I used some money from credit and was able to come up with the rent.”

About 2,000 applications for rent relief that were filed in Maine before the program ended Dec. 31 are still being processed, according to MaineHousing. An agency spokesperson said those applications are pending because either the tenant or landlord, or both, haven’t provided the necessary information or signed the needed agreement, and the delays are not unique to Maine.

The frustrations experienced by those trying to access rent relief highlight the structural challenges facing nonprofit community action programs as they prepare to administer another round of rental assistance. Congress appropriated $25 billion for rental assistance as part of the coronavirus relief package passed in December, $200 million of which is coming to Maine.

MaineHousing spokeswoman Cara Courchesne said the state is awaiting guidance from the U.S. Treasury Department before it can roll out the next round of rent relief. And that probably won’t happen for another few weeks, she said.

Courchesne said the next round of funding has several advantages over the previous program, partly because renters can be approved for a three-month period, rather than only on a monthly basis. The money can be used to pay back rent, prospective rent and help with other housing costs, like utility bills.

“This will make for a more predictable program: We are able to hire staff to meet demand, program requirements will remain consistent, and the application process will be streamlined,” she said. “We are also making changes to the application system that will allow us to provide notifications to applicants during the process.”

But there also is a drawback. Courchesne said the federal funding will come with more administrative requirements, though the details will not be known until the Treasury Department releases its guidance.

“Federal rent relief funding comes with a lot of requirements,” Courchesne said. “It requires far more documentation than our previous program.”

As of Feb. 4, the Expanded Rent Program provided more than $18.8 million in rent relief to 8,210 Maine households, representing 10,220 applications, from August through December, according to MaineHousing. In all, the agency community action programs received over 21,00 applications, though 4,000 were withdrawn or ineligible and others were duplicates.

The next round of funding will also be administered by community action programs across the state, Courchesne said, and MaineHousing is helping these nonprofits staff up and train workers.

Joseph Everett, president of Opportunity Alliance, which administered the program for Cumberland County, said his agency’s staff was simply overwhelmed by demand for help. He noted that the state offered three rounds of rent relief, all with different requirements, which made it difficult to hire full-time staff. That made it difficult to catch up to the initial surges that occurred when each program opened. So the agency turned to temp workers, who were also in short supply, he said.

Everett said the agency has increased the number of people processing applications from three to 11. But he expects it will take at least 20 full-time staffers to keep up with the demand, especially the initial surge of applications. And it’s unclear how much of the rent relief can be used to offset the administrative costs of increased staffing, he said.

The Opportunity Alliance still had 50 applications pending because the landlord had not signed the agreement to participate in the relief program, which among other things prevents them from evicting residents for nonpayment of rents for which the assistance is being provided.

Everett said the agency is working hard to ensure it’s ready to meet the demand for the next round, including tapping staff at other community action programs to help process Cumberland County’s high workload. He expects to receive an initial surge of as many as 500 applications, up from the 350 initial applications it received in August.

“I think it’s on the Opportunity Alliance to make sure (we) have the infrastructure in place,” Everett said. “We’re working really hard and I think that’s our lesson. Follow your data. Have the infrastructure in place and figure out roles to make sure we’re getting to people in need as quickly as possible.”

For Maine families, the stakes are high.

A February report from the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition indicated that Mainers are falling behind on rent payments, burning through their savings and skipping bills in order to stay housed.

At the same time, the report also indicates that evictions remain low – a sign that the eviction moratoriums are working.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a nationwide moratorium on evictions because of an inability to pay rent on Sept. 4. For-cause evictions stemming from property damage, criminal activity and threats to other tenants, among other things, are still allowed. The moratorium was originally set to expire on Dec. 31, but was extended to March 31 by President Biden.

However, the National Low Income Housing Coalition warns that the move only postpones most evictions, rather then prevents them, since tenants will still be responsible for paying back rent once the moratorium expires.

Based on monthly interviews with 62 tenants throughout the state, 56 percent of those surveyed by the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition reported a loss of income because of the pandemic. Eighty-two percent of those surveyed said they were able to pay their full rent, which was down from 97 percent in June. Thirty-five percent of respondents reported skipping bills, a percentage that has been steadily increasing since the fall. Sixty-four percent said they had significantly depleted or completely depleted their savings, and 46 percent reported increased credit debt.

“The big thing that seems to (be) happening is the pressure is really building – more people are falling behind and they’re hanging on by their fingernails,” said Greg Payne, director of the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition. “With $200 million, that’s such an incredible opportunity to get people caught up on back rent and relieve the pressure on landlords, who are trying to be patient and get through this.”

People like Murray, the 61-year-old Portland resident, are at a breaking point.

“I’m struggling – I’m talking mayonnaise sandwiches for dinner and ketchup soup,” he said. “I’m sick of people dragging their feet on this, because it’s affecting people’s lives, except the people who are in the position of power to make some changes, but they’re not doing it. I’ve gone through this experience and it’s not fun, it’s not pleasant.”


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.