Portland renters could face evictions as federal freeze expires

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While virtually everyone is looking forward to putting 2020 behind them, the end of this year may bring bad news for some residents of rental housing.

Dec. 31 marks the end of a federal moratorium on evictions during the coronavirus pandemic, meaning landlords will soon be able to begin delivering notices of evictions and kicking renters out of their apartments. The federal ban was issued by the Center for Disease Control to prevent the eviction of renters who experienced a loss of income due to the pandemic.

While a one-month extension of the eviction moratorium is being discussed, a national analysis from global advisory firm Stout Risius Ross estimated 35 percent of Maine renters may face eviction once the freeze ends.

A “For Rent” sign outside an apartment building on Spring Street in Portland. A study suggests more than a third of renters in Maine are at risk of losing their homes if a federal moratorium on pandemic-related evictions is allowed to expire Dec. 31. (Portland Phoenix/Colin Ellis)

Even the moratorium didn’t necessarily stop all evictions, according to Katherine McGovern, managing attorney at Pine Tree Legal in Portland. McGovern said evictions were still going forward in Maine for other reasons, including tenants withholding rent and for tenants who have only month-to-month leases.

Throughout the pandemic, McGovern said, the burden has been on tenants to know their own rights in terms of qualifying for rent postponement to pause evictions. 

Landlords must provide a 30-day notice to evict a tenant for non-payment, and a 45-day notice for a no-fault eviction. These cases were still able to go to court, she said.

There is also a seven-day eviction notice that landlords can issue in the event property has been damaged, or if a tenant has been deemed a nuisance. Notices must be in writing and served in person. A notice can be posted on a door or through the mail if the landlord has attempted to serve the notice in person three times.

McGovern said many cases that were slated to go before a judge wound up postponed until January, after the federal eviction freeze has expired.

“A lot of cases will be able to move fairly quickly once the mortarium expires,” she said.

To back up postponed rent payments, McGovern said, tenants would have had to complete a CDC declaration form that shows their income has been impacted because of the pandemic. In some cases, the deferred rent would still be owed because the CDC’s action did not grant rent forgiveness.

“Your landlord can try to collect the full amount of your rent or evict you after the CDC order expires on Dec. 31,” according to the Pine Tree Legal website.

McGovern did not provide statistics, but said her organization has seen increasing eviction cases through August, September, and October.

She said a renter cannot be forced out without a court order, and even if a tenant doesn’t leave once they receive a notice, their landlord must still seek court authorization to take action. A tenant’s court date must be at least seven days after they are served.

McGovern said the recently passed tenants’ rights initiative in Portland adds another wrinkle to the already complex picture. The initiative was aimed largely at rent control but also impacts evictions.

The initiative, known as Question D, sought to create more protections for renters, including caps on annual rent increases and created a Rent Board, which will conduct hearings on tenant complaints and mediate disputes between tenants and landlords. The Rent Board is not yet formed, and the city is accepting applications for members.

McGovern said her office has started receiving calls about rent increases, and she said she believes there will be many more questions to come now that the initiative has taken effect.

There have been discussions in Washington, D.C., about extending the eviction moratorium, according to national news outlets, and CNBC reported last week on bipartisan legislation that would provide $25 billion in rental assistance.

The city of Portland recently issued its own rent relief package, provided by the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, also known as the CARES Act. The federal package being discussed in Washington would target households earning 50 percent of the area’s median income and below, and could cover up to 18 months of back rent.

McGovern said since every tenant’s case is individual, the most important thing a renter facing eviction can do is to call learn their rights. She said even in normal times, eviction laws are complicated issues to sort through.

The court process is a little different now, with conference calls happening by phone as part of emergency COVID-19 rules. There will also be scheduled mediation ahead of a hearing, again by phone. A trial will follow if mediation fails, although McGovern said that too will look different than in years past and will be by phone or video.

“It seems incomprehensible that even the limited protections offered by the CDC will be ending while COVID-19 rates everywhere are skyrocketing, without assistance from the federal government, and with the ending of unemployment benefits,” McGovern said. “Long term, tenants are in a really tight spot.”