On Tuesday, Mainers facing the threat of eviction, landlords, and housing advocates called on Gov. Janet Mills to take executive action to place a moratorium on all residential and commercial evictions and foreclosures, with rent forgiveness, until the public health emergency created by COVID-19 is over. Advocates electronically delivered over 1,800 messages to Governor Mills from Mainers across the state urging action.
"Our landlord has given us an extension for April, but we still don't have any idea how we're going to pay for both months when May comes, and we can't be the only ones," said Bianca Brancella, an unemployed restaurant server from Rockland who signed the petition. "We had finally started to get our heads above water with rent and bills when the coronavirus hit. Now we're both out of work again, but we are doing our best to live within our means and look for jobs. How are we supposed to bounce back as a state if we can't come to a reasonable solution for tenants and landlords?"
The petition calls for the Governor to issue an executive order placing a moratorium on all evictions and foreclosures of residences and small businesses to extend at least 90 days after the end of the public health emergency. Additionally the petition calls for rents and mortgages to be forgiven during the period of the moratorium, and the establishment of a program for property owners to seek financial assistance from the government for lost revenue from rental payments during the period of the moratorium.
The delivery comes after Gov. Mills issued a stay-at-home order requiring Mainers to shelter in place for all but essential services like pharmacy or grocery store visits. Governor Mills declined to say whether she would support a moratorium on evictions or rent increases, saying that she would deal with the issue "informally" at this time.
"With good reason, the Governor has asked all Mainers to stay home - but people need a home to heed that call, and many who are out of work can't afford rent or mortgage payments," said Alison Weiss of Maine Equal Justice. "All Mainers have a right to be safe and housed. We urge the Governor to take steps toward greater housing security in this critical moment, by declaring a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures, and providing financial assistance for renters and landlords."
There is some form of eviction freeze now in place in 34 states. In the northeast, governors in New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Delaware have issued moratorium orders that go beyond freezes in court proceedings. Delaware has announced they will begin offering cash assistance to renters affected by the pandemic.
Despite the fact that Maine's courts have temporarily halted eviction proceedings because of COVID-19 there have been documented threats of eviction for residential and commercial renters in the last month. Residents of Portland's Bayside Village began receiving eviction notices in late March and tenants of an apartment and boarding house in Augusta found themselves locked out of their building after being told to vacate the property. Small business owners in Portland have begun circulating a petition to the city council demanding a rent freeze after several business owners reported that landlords were continuing to demand April rent without providing any flexibility.
"We've had many of the same tenants for 20 years in our building. Many of them are artists and small business owners themselves, and you really form close relationships with people when you see their work, mature and grow over that amount of time," said Katarina Weslien, who is the co-owner of 25 studio spaces in downtown Portland. "Unfortunately, some landlords are taking advantage of the situation that we're in, trying to evict tenants in order to raise the rents and we think this just is not right. This is a collective problem and it requires a collective response. That's why we're calling on Governor Mills to issue a rent freeze during this crisis and provide cash assistance to landlords who would lose income from not collecting rents."
Organizations who work with tenants and individuals experiencing homelessness fear that without guidance from the state, landlords will continue to threaten illegal evictions and jeopardize access to housing for Mainers long after this public health crisis has ended.
“As Mainers stay home to slow the spread of COVID-19, we are reminded now as ever that housing is healthcare,” said Heather Zimmerman, Advocacy Director at Preble Street. “Homelessness is always an emergency and people experiencing homelessness are particularly vulnerable to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the current emergency our state must recommit to ending homelessness, starting with ensuring that no additional Mainers are subjected to homelessness during the public health and economic crises.”
The petition was circulated with the support of Choose Yourself, Cooperative Development Institute, Healthy Homeworks, Homeless Advocacy For All, Homeless Voices for Justice, Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project, Island Housing Trust, Land In Common, Maine AFL-CIO, Maine Center for Economic Policy, Maine Democratic Socialists of America, Maine Equal Justice, Maine Immigrant Housing Coalition, Maine People's Alliance, Maine Poor People’s Campaign, Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition, Maine Prisoner Re-Entry Network, Maine Service Employees Association, Maine Small Business Coalition, Maine Women's Lobby, Mano en Mano, Monhegan Island Sustainable Community Association, People's Housing Coalition of Portland, Presente! Maine, Raise-Op Housing Cooperative, Southern Maine Workers Center, Up With Community.