Changes in MaineHousing program eligibility leave some uncertain about future

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Eligibility standards for the Maine State Housing Authority’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program are changing effective Wednesday.

MAINE, United States — Some Mainers fear they will be homeless as of Wednesday. The Maine State Housing Authority is changing its eligibility criteria for the Emergency Housing Assistance Program, which began in March 2021 as a temporary measure to address stressors brought on by the pandemic.

The changes that take effect Wednesday will limit benefit amounts and cap accommodation rates at the federal standard. The four key changes include:

  • Capping hotel payments within the Federal General Services Administration limits, depending on season and location.
  • Limitation of participation in the ERA program to 12 months instead of 18 months.
  • Reduce program income eligibility from 80% of area median income to 50%.
  • Limit what the program covers only to rent, rent arrears, security deposits, and electric utility expenses. The program will also no longer be an option for people already living in subsidized housing.

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“We are hopeful [these changes] will allow us to extend the program through next winter and into the spring of 2023,” said MaineHousing communications director Scott Thistle. “Otherwise, we expect this program to run out of funds in the fall.”

Thistle said it was important for people to remember that the ERA program was never meant to be a permanent fix. He said since the program launched in March 2021, they have provided nearly $200 million in rent relief to Mainers.

“It was funded with a large amount but a limited amount of funding, so it doesn’t have an ongoing source of funding,” Thistle said.

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Sarah Austin is an attorney at Pine Tree Legal Assistance. She said she and her team are currently working with about 19 people from Cumberland, Sagadahoc and York counties who have stayed in hotels and motels and are at risk of eviction when program eligibility standards change.

“It’s absolutely terrifying for these people, and these people have rights,” Austin said.

Austin said Pine Tree Legal’s goal is to prove that their clients are tenants of the hotel or motel they stayed in, not just guests. This way, they would be entitled to an eviction process, which could buy them up to a month and a half of time to find a new living situation. Austin said that under the law, a person is considered a tenant if the hotel does not provide them with traditional amenities, such as maid service, cleaning service, laundry service and regular changing of sheets.

“Every day counts when you’re looking for housing,” Austin said of the importance of being housed.

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The Travel Inn in Lewiston has been participating in the ERA program since November 2021. General Manager Tammy Wilson said she has wanted to participate to help people since she once held the position.

“I was homeless at one point – my husband and I,” Wilson said. “I know how it feels.”

Wilson said many people come to stay at the hostel after losing their jobs or housing. She said she was keeping her rates very low — about $275 a week or $43 a night — so her customers wouldn’t be hit by Wednesday’s new ERA program eligibility standards. Even so, it’s unclear what will happen when the program is fully exhausted.

“I’m very worried. I’m very scared for my clients,” Wilson said.

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One such guest is Bert Brown, who has lived at the Travel Inn for about five years. He started using the ERA program after he lost his job.

“People right now — we’re just trying to make ends meet,” Brown said.

Brown said he had been homeless in the past and didn’t want to be in that situation after the ERA program ended.

“The idea of ​​not having a place to stay — it gets to you,” Brown said.

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Jeremy Zelaya-Floyd is a school intervention strategist in the Greater Portland area. Zelaya-Floyd said he heard some of the students he worked with say they were at risk of losing their housing because of the situation.

“The majority of students struggling with homelessness come to school tired, exhausted, emotionally exhausted,” Zelaya-Floyd said.

The strategist added that he worries about his students’ mental health and their ability to succeed in the long term when they have to worry about basic needs like food and shelter.

“I don’t know what else is going to happen to these guys, and I’m really worried because it will take even more effort in the fall to reconnect them,” Zelaya-Floyd said.

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Click the links to learn more about changes to ERA program eligibility standards and new earnings limits.

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