Central Coast city leaders and nonprofit organizations hope General Assistance programs will provide support to residents left out by the cold. expiring federal emergency rental assistance programwhile lawmakers in Augusta rush to pass emergency legislation to support struggling Mainers.
“It’s probably number 1 in my inbox,” Senator Mattie Daughtry told the Brunswick City Council Monday night. “We’re starting to hear some pretty dire stories.”
What is the Emergency Rental Assistance program?
Enacted by Congress in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Emergency Rental Assistance program provided states with funds to help residents struggling under the burden of rent, utilities and other housing costs.
Since the program began in mid-2021, MaineHousing has approved more than $292 million in aid, with most of that money covering rent checks for qualifying Mainers, according to the housing authority’s website.
More than 300 Brunswick families have benefited from ERA, with 77 still in the program as of the end of November, said Deb Crocker, the city’s human services administrator.
About 80 Bath families have used the program, according to City Manager Marc Meyers.
As Maine ERA funding has decreased, fewer residents have been able to get rental assistance. MaineHousing stopped accepting new applicants on September 29 and the program will officially end at the end of 2022.
What could the end of the ERA mean for Midcoast residents?
The emergency rental assistance program ends at a time when rising energy costs and housing shortages have led to a surge in residents seeking help, according to housing experts.
Tedford Housing, which currently has a waiting list of 140 families seeking a place in the six family units of the shelter, turned away more than 700 people who needed emergency housing last year, according to executive director Rota Knott. While the region’s limited housing supply is the biggest factor driving residents to shelters, Knott said high heating costs and the expiration of the ERA have already contributed to the problem of housing insecurity.
“We are absolutely expecting to see a significant increase in calls due to this situation,” he said. “Shelters across the state have been wondering what the plan is when this is over, because we can’t meet that need.”
Pandemic relief programs like ERA covered a long-standing housing crisis, Bath Housing chief executive Deb Keller said, noting that local rents have risen 70% in the past seven years.
Now, after two years of extreme inflation, residents are losing a key safety net and finding the situation more dire than ever. While some will be able to find money to avoid eviction, they may have to sacrifice other necessities to do so, putting pressure on other welfare programs.
“People were able to use rent relief and that gave them a little financial cushion,” Keller said. “They could cover their medical costs; could cover increases in transportation costs; could cover increases in food costs. Now the rent is not paid. Does that mean they are going to be evicted? Maybe not, but now they can’t afford their transportation. They can’t afford their food.”
What help is on the way?
On Wednesday, Maine lawmakers met in Augusta for a public hearing on DL 3that would provide $473 million in heating assistance, short-term housing support, and $450 direct checks to qualifying taxpayers.
While the bill would not extend the ERA, it could help put money in the pockets of those who need it most, Daughtry told the Brunswick City Council on Monday.
“Our hope is, by making these programs better funded, that we can take some of the pressure off not only people in dire financial need, but also municipalities like Brunswick trying to be able to provide that assistance. ” she said.
The bill must pass both houses of the Legislature, which returns to session on January 4, with a two-thirds majority to take effect immediately as emergency legislation. If that happens, aid will arrive in the Midcoast by the end of the month, according to Daughtry. If it passes with less than a two-thirds majority, it won’t take effect until the summer, long after the need for heating assistance has passed.
As Augusta works on its package, Midcoast cities are hopeful that their General Assistance programs will protect residents most at risk of eviction.
Only about 20% of the 77 Brunswick families currently relying on ERA appear to be in immediate serious risk of eviction, according to Crocker. She believes those families should be able to qualify for General Assistance, which will give them the relief they need, at least for their first month in the program when aid restrictions are less stringent.
But if help from the Legislature doesn’t arrive this winter, Brunswick’s General Assistance office, which is 30% funded through local taxes, could find itself short of money and manpower to meet growing demand, he said. City Manager John Eldridge. .
“We expect other pressures on GA, significant pressures, in the coming months,” he said. “We have our work cut out for us.”
While Knott and other housing advocates support state and local efforts to provide emergency relief to renters and homeowners, they agree that the state cannot truly solve the current crisis without also prioritize efforts to build new housing units.
“There is a lot of talk about putting people back in hotels and other short-term solutions,” Knott said. “Unless…we do something about permanent housing, those are just Band-Aids on a rupturing wound.”