General Assistance programs brace for impact from early end to federal emergency rental aid

General Assistance programs brace for impact from early end to federal emergency rental aid

Kristen Barth, social services director for the city of South Portland, outside City Hall. Barth says the city is seeing unprecedented applications for General Assistance help as the federal Emergency Rental Assistance Program comes to a close. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

SOUTH PORTLAND — The city’s General Assistance program is getting an early introduction to the turmoil many Maine municipalities fear will result from the sudden end of the federal Emergency Rental Assistance Program.

The local welfare program has been overwhelmed since some residents learned last week they will be evicted because funding from the federal Emergency Rental Assistance Program has run out.

“We were booked with appointments every half-hour from 8:30 to 3,” Kristen Barth, the city’s social services director said. “I’ve been in this field for over 10 years and I’ve never experienced anything like this.”

MaineHousing officials and the Mills administration are trying to lessen the impact of the cutoff, saying they made headway in securing funding for households that applied before applications were paused on Sept. 29, effectively ending the ERA program in Maine.

The program started in March 2021 as a temporary measure to help people struggling to pay rent or utility costs because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It has provided $285.5 million to 33,888 households across Maine, and funding was expected to last at least through November for nearly 8,600 households still receiving assistance, but that may no longer be the case.

It’s unclear how much funding is needed to bring the program to a close or how many households would benefit, said Scott Thistle, a spokesperson for MaineHousing. Households could reapply for help every three months, so the amount of assistance varied. He noted that most other states have ended or begun winding down their emergency rental assistance programs, and some excluded noncitizens and people living in hotels.

“We’re still waiting for totals from the agencies that handled the final applications to find out how much money they need,” Thistle said. “There’s also a strong effort underway to make sure people living in motels and hotels don’t wind up in a housing crisis.”

GENERAL ASSISTANCE

And there’s growing awareness across Maine that the first stop for many who lose ERA funding will be their local General Assistance office, Thistle said. The potential impact could spread widely, with larger pockets of current recipients in Bangor (944), Portland (872), Lewiston (726), Auburn (306), Almost Isle (258), Biddeford (224), Sanford (197), Waterville (191), Scarborough (160), Augusta (150), Old Town (147), Farmington (124) and Caribou (100).

General Assistance is a locally and state-funded program administered by municipalities that helps families and individuals pay for housing; fuel oil; utilities; food; household, personal and medical supplies; and burial costs. The state reimburses 60% of GA expenses, as long as municipalities process applications within 24 hours.

But with so many people suddenly losing rental assistance, many cities and towns won’t be able to meet that deadline and could lose reimbursements, said Rebecca Graham, legislative advocate with the Maine Municipal Association.

The problem is acute in an overheated housing market where apartments are scarce and rents have risen exponentially in recent years, Graham said. Smaller communities also will struggle to keep up if they have a small GA staff or applications are handled by a member of the select board.

“There was zero planning for what to do when this funding ran out,” Graham said. “At a minimum, they should have had a plan to give cities and towns time to process applications without being penalized. We already have a housing crisis. Winter is coming. This is a bad time to have people at risk of becoming homeless.”

With ERA funding coming to such an abrupt halt, MaineHousing and the Mills administration are taking steps to help recipients across Maine who may face eviction, Thistle said.

MaineHousing initially projected program funds would last at least through December, but an uptick in demand over the summer accelerated the depletion of available funds.

State officials discussed alternative funding options with US Treasury officials in a conference call late last week.

“We are optimistic that it’s going to result in funding that will allow us to finish processing ERA applications that were in the queue prior to pushing pause,” Thistle said. “The application process will not reopen and the program is unlikely to be restarted in its current form.”

Kristen Barth, South Portland’s social services director, in her office at City Hall. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

‘UNSUSTAINABLE’

Some of the 410 households in South Portland learned last week that their ERA funding has already run out and they have turned to the city’s General Assistance program for help, said Barth, the social services director.

Most of the affected residents are among 176 households that are staying in hotels because they are experiencing homelessness, and many of them are asylum-seekers, Barth said.

The unexpected cutoff gave Barth and two caseworkers a preview of what it will be like when other residents lose their ERA funding. The GA office in City Hall has been seeing several more clients each day, adding to the 12 to 15 clients typically seen each weekday. Some come with children in tow. Most require telephone translation services.

The increase in GA applicants continued this week, including some people in apartments with large back rent balances they thought were already covered by the ERA program. If the numbers continue to rise, Barth and her staff could be seeing 20 to 30 clients daily and pushing the GA budget well beyond an expected 49% increase.

“That’s just unsustainable,” she said.

In South Portland, like many communities, GA spending has risen steadily in recent years, from $352,534 in fiscal 2015 to about $874,805 in fiscal 2022, which ended in June.

Anticipating the loss of ERA funding for recipients living in local hotels, City Manager Scott Morelli pushed the current GA budget estimate to $13 million, a 49% increase.

That includes people currently living in South Portland who may move and apply for GA benefits in another Maine community, Morelli said. Under GA rules, the city would be responsible for their housing costs for one month if they move into an apartment or six months if they move into a hotel.

But while the ERA program has been covering monthly hotel bills averaging $7,200 per household, South Portland’s GA program covers $1,248 per month in rental fees, Morelli said. That would be a hard stretch for many tenants in a market where most apartments top $1,500 per month.

Moreover, people living in hotels don’t have the usual legal protections from immediate eviction afforded to apartment dwellers, but the hotels have given the residents one month to find alternative housing, similar to tenants at will, Barth said.

ERA recipients were placed in South Portland hotels by The Opportunity Alliance and ProsperityME in Cumberland County, and by York County Community Action Corp. in Sanford. All received ERA funding through MaineHousing.

“We have provided notice to some tenants while we make determinations about what we will be able to fund based on the funding we received,” Karen Turgeon, spokesperson for The Opportunity Alliance, said in a written response. Turgeon didn’t respond to additional questions about the funding cutoff.

Claude Rwaganje, executive director of ProsperityME, an agency that works primarily with immigrants, said many of his clients are frightened and confused by the sudden loss of funding. Rwaganje is also a Westbrook city councilor.

“The biggest concern is that the end of the (ERA) program will create homelessness, especially for asylum-seekers who don’t have permission to work or other means to take care of themselves,” Rwaganje said. “They’ve been getting eviction notices from the hotels that say they have 30 days to leave. This is a humanitarian crisis and it’s a statewide issue.”

York County Community Action did not respond to a request to discuss the impact of the lost funding. A notice on the agency’s website said if clients applied for rental assistance before the program was paused, “it will be processed and a determination of any benefit amount for eligible applicants will be based on the funding available.”

Hotels dwellers who applied to YCCA in September “may be eligible for September, October and November hotel payments as long as the money is available and they have available units to use.” The notice advised clients to call the agency for more information or visit their local GA office.

Most of the affected residents live at the Howard Johnson hotel on Main Street. Owned by New Gen Hospitality Management of South Portland, it’s one of four hotels that the city cracked down on this year for continuing to operate as emergency shelters because it violated the terms of their operating licenses.

When the city renewed the licenses in August, Morelli said New Gen had indicated it wanted to stop providing emergency shelter in early 2023, when a $25 million, 208-bed homeless shelter and service center is expected to open in Portland. New Gen owner Suresh Gali didn’t respond to a request to discuss the ERA funding cutoff.

In addition, Avesta Housing is working with MaineHousing and the governor’s office to provide permanent housing for asylum-seekers. It has set aside 52 apartments in its West End II development on Westbrook Street in South Portland, and it’s negotiating to buy 48 apartments from the developer of Winchester Woods in Portland.

Demand for those apartments is high. The first week that Avesta started taking applications for West End II, more than 1,000 households applied.


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