ELLSWORTH — In an effort to help renters affected by the coronavirus pandemic stay in their homes, Governor Janet Mills announced a $5-million rental assistance relief program and signed an executive order preventing most evictions last week.
“It is my hope that these actions will provide a sense of relief, both financial and emotional, to Maine people struggling to make ends meet and that they will mitigate the spread of the virus by keeping Maine people healthy at home,” Mills said in a press release.
The rental relief program, in partnership with MaineHousing, offers a one-time $500 rental assistance payment to households that meet income and eligibility requirements, which include having a maximum monthly income of $3,696 for an individual ($7,108 for a four or more person household).
Local landlords said they have not yet seen a surge in tenants unable to pay rent and anticipate that expanded unemployment benefits will mean that even those who do lose their jobs will likely be able to pay, at least in the short term.
“We’re doing OK,” said Jonathan Bates, who owns more than 50 units around the city. “There are a lot of programs out there for everybody and those are in place for them to pay their essential bills.”
While the amount of unemployment benefits a Maine resident receives depends on what an employee was earning before losing his or her job, state benefits max out at $445 per week (plus $10 per week for a dependent), according to the Maine Department of Labor, for up to 26 weeks in a 52-week period. The average Hancock County resident makes $32,491 annually, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, which works out to $625 per week before taxes.
The federal government also pledged to expand unemployment benefits to self-employed people and offer an additional $600 per week on top of state benefits. That extra money will begin arriving in the bank accounts of those who are receiving benefits this week, according to the Maine Department of Labor’s COVID-19 updates page, and will be retroactive to April 4. The extra $600 (beyond the first payment) will be subject to state income tax.
That means, as Chris Jones, property manager at Jones Real Estate, pointed out: “Folks could be collecting unemployment and possibly making more money than those who are employed,” at least for a short period. Jones said the company, which has a little more than 90 units from Bucksport to Milbridge (most concentrated in Ellsworth), hasn’t yet seen the effects of the pandemic hitting struggling businesses and employers.
“My feeling is,” said Jones, “There shouldn’t be any problem in April because we’re on the outer edges of this. But maybe there will be a time we should pay attention and find out who we need to help.”
Jones estimated that roughly 20 to 25 percent of the company’s renters were receiving government housing assistance, payments he said likely won’t be affected by the virus.
Both Bates and Jones said they’d work with anyone who needs it to help manage payments. “We’ll do whatever for anybody,” said Bates, who said he’s been approached by “a couple people” asking if they could work on a delayed payment program.
“But we know there are programs out there for people and they’re put in place to help with essential bills,” said Bates. “The landlords should not be responsible for paying for coronavirus.”