Craig Saddlemire stands in front of a Raise-Op Housing Cooperative building in Lewiston on Tuesday. Saddlemire has advocated for a statewide eviction freeze. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

LEWISTON — A few weeks ago, the Raise-Op Housing Cooperative, which operates 15 apartments in three buildings on Maple and Pierce streets, decided to cancel some or all of April rent for residents who have lost income due to COVID-19.

“We will probably continue to do that for any resident who is not able to access sufficient government assistance during this crisis,” Craig Saddlemire, Raise-Op coordinator, said this week.

But Saddlemire, who has been deeply involved in efforts to restore and advocate for safe housing in downtown Lewiston, said he’s been hearing a range of experiences from tenants and landlords in navigating the crisis.

Some show landlords defying local and statewide emergency orders urging them to pause evictions and rent increases, while others show property owners working closely with tenants to weather the pandemic.

While the state previously announced no eviction hearings will be heard by the courts until at least May 1, Saddlemire said he’s hearing about landlords initiating new eviction procedures, which “could get hearings as soon as May if the courts reopen as scheduled.”

Some landlords, he said, have even increased rents since the stay-at-home order was issued, or are simply requiring regular rent to be paid within five days from the normal due date.

At the same time, landlords are receiving mixed messages from creditors regarding suspending mortgage payments.

In response, Saddlemire and Raise-Op have been advocating for a statewide eviction freeze that would also cancel rent and reimburse landlords during the emergency. A coalition of groups delivered over 1,800 petition signatures to Gov. Janet Mills on Tuesday calling for eviction and foreclosure moratoriums, as well as rent and mortgage forgiveness.

“The economic disruptions caused by COVID-19 will create new financial instability for hundreds of thousands of Mainers and will greatly exacerbate the housing challenges we already faced,” a Raise-Op statement said.

Mills on Tuesday teased that she is working on an executive order relating to evictions, but had not announced an order by late Wednesday.

‘A BACKSTOP’

For many landlords, especially those who equate to very small businesses, the pandemic is equally challenging. A lack of rent payments means less money for mortgage payments or repairs, and creditors are sending mixed messages.

Amy Smith, a Lewiston landlord, said Wednesday that she’s been working with tenants to set up payment plans while they await assistance programs such as unemployment benefits or the federal stimulus.

She’s also been communicating with tenants about other options. For low-income tenants, that means contacting Lewiston Housing as quickly as possible to report income changes so their housing subsidies can be increased accordingly.

Amy Smith, a Lewiston landlord, has been working with tenants on rent payments while navigating mixed messages from creditors.

“It’s just this fine line of reaching out and saying, do you need flexibility this month, and let’s talk about it,” she said. “But, it’s so personal. It’s tough.”

Smith said most of her creditors have offered a three-month loan forbearance, but it’s not as simple as it sounds.

She said some banks, despite granting the 90-day forbearance, have sent documentation stating they expect the full amount to be paid on day 91, rather than adding the three months onto the end of the loan.

When she called one creditor about it, they told her she could call on day 75 to change it. Meanwhile, despite the forbearance being approved, late payment notices are still coming.

“That’s stressful,” she said. “At the end of the day, I have to trust that I don’t owe three months plus interest on day 91. It makes it pretty hard to be comfortable passing on flexibility (to tenants).”

She said despite reluctance to implement financial assistance to landlords, given concerns that some may not pass on benefits to tenants, property owners need “a backstop” in order to keep people housed. Smith thought a three-month forbearance would be the backstop, but now believes, “Maybe, maybe not.”

‘STABILITY’

Smith said Wednesday that she agrees with organizations such as Raise-Op, which is pushing for a statewide eviction freeze for nonpayment of rent.

At the municipal level, both mayors in the Twin Cities have previously issued statements urging tenants and landlords to work together on rent payments, but municipalities have no legal authority.

Asked Wednesday, Mayor Mark Cayer said he’s heard the full gamut of feedback from both tenants and landlords since his statement was released. One tenant told him they recently received a seven-day eviction notice, while others have said they don’t know how they will pay next month’s rent.

Cayer’s March 23 statement said no renter should be be evicted or face threats of eviction during the state of emergency and for the first 90 days of recovery, “except where such actions must be taken as a matter of personal and physical safety,” and that “no one should incur accrued interest, late fees, or new debt in order to remain in their homes during this crisis, be it for rent or home mortgages.”

He said landlords have shared concerns similar to other small businesses.

“They have margins that are very small, and they want to survive this crisis just like any other small business,” he said. “We don’t want to see good landlords forced out of the business.”

Cayer said he doesn’t think there should be statewide rent relief, but that officials need to shift their focus on securing “gap funding” for both tenants and landlords to help them through the crisis.

He’d like to avoid another housing crisis hitting Lewiston, like the one caused by the 2008 recession that the city is still crawling out of.

Locally, he said, tenants can contact the city’s General Assistance office to see if they meet recently amended income rules. He urged tenants and landlords to reach out to city staff.

“I can assure you the City Council has a concern about the stability of our housing,” he said. “If we don’t have the funding that can meet their needs we can point them in the right direction.”

During the Auburn City Council meeting Monday, Mayor Jason Levesque said he has added language to his recent emergency declaration, which urged landlords to rescind or suspend all evictions for nonpayment of rent.

The added language states tenants must provide the property owner “with documentation outlining the reasons for nonpayment within five business days of the payment date,” by mail or email, a statement that concerned at least a few councilors Monday.

“There is an equal responsibility between landlord and tenant,” Levesque said.

Councilor Holly Lasagna questioned the need for the five-day limit, stating, “There may be people who don’t know when they’re going to get their next paycheck, or not native English-speakers.”

“The point is, it sends a message of awareness,” Levesque said.

Councilor Stephen Milks, who is a landlord in Auburn, said in his experience, “most landlords, who are good landlords, are already communicating with their tenants.”

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