An attorney for a landlord, front left, and a tenant, center, speak with District Judge Peter Darvin about an agreement they’ve worked out at the Cumberland County Courthouse. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Susan Boissonneau sat with her baby on her lap.

“All right,” District Judge Peter Darvin said, and even the infant was quiet. “The cases that are scheduled this morning are forcible entry and detainer cases, otherwise known as eviction cases.”

The pandemic put a brief pause on some housing evictions and brought a flood of federal dollars for emergency rental assistance. The prohibitions have long expired, and the money has dried up.

By October, the number of eviction filings statewide for the year had already surpassed the 3,896 during all of 2021. Mainers are increasingly at risk of losing their housing at a time when shelters are strained and experts say nearly half the state’s tenants are paying too much for rent.

Boissonneau walked into a crowded hallway when she arrived at the Cumberland County Courthouse on Dec. 8. Landlords and tenants clutched their paperwork. Lawyers spoke to their clients in hushed tones. When the courtroom opened, the wooden benches were quickly so full that some people had to stand.

Susan Boissonneau holds her 3-month-old son, Scott, as she waits for her Pine Tree Legal Assistance lawyer to confer with a landlord’s attorney. Boissonneau learned in October that she had 30 days to vacate her Portland apartment. Pregnant with her fifth child, she did not leave. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“Our courtrooms aren’t big enough for the number of people who are being evicted,” said Oriana Farnham, a lawyer from Maine Equal Justice who represents tenants.


Boissonneau learned in October that she had 30 days to leave her Portland apartment. Her landlord did not have to provide a reason. She thought of the nights she spent in a shelter a decade ago, when her oldest daughter was still a toddler. Ten years later, she is pregnant with her fifth child. She could not find a place to move before her deadline, so she did not leave. Then she got the court summons.

“What am I going to do with my kids?” she asked.


The judge began to call cases.

If a tenant has a lease, that document usually spells out the rules for an eviction. If a tenant does not, landlords can give notice to quit in seven days for cause (such as not paying rent or causing serious damage to the apartment) or 30 days for no stated reason. Any longer, and the landlord can have the tenant served with a summons to appear in court.

Despite the full room, at least 18 tenants were absent when the judge called their names. If a current tenant doesn’t show, the landlord can ask for a default judgment and a writ of possession for the unit. The writ issues a week after the court date and gives the tenant 48 hours to leave. An eviction judgment can show up in screening reports or credit checks, haunting a tenant for years, so volunteer lawyers do everything possible to avoid that outcome.


Susan Boissonneau holds her 3-month-old son, Scott, in the court room at the Cumberland County Courthouse on Dec. 8. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Tenants have a right to a hearing, but the stakes are high. If the judge sides with the landlord, the tenant has seven days to move out. So most cases resolve with some kind of agreement, maybe a payment plan for back rent or a couple of extra months to move out.

The judge sent people from the courtroom into the hallway to negotiate, and the benches emptied as he moved down the list.

Boissonneau stood up when the judge called her name. Her landlord’s attorney, Sam Sherry, greeted her: “Ms. Boissonneau.”

“Do you object to the landlord recovering possession?” the judge asked her.

“Yes,” she answered quickly.

“I’d like you to have an initial discussion,” Darvin said to the two of them. “I may send you to mediation.”


In Maine, no one is guaranteed a lawyer in an eviction case. Most landlords hire one, while tenants rely on volunteer attorneys from organizations like Pine Tree Legal Assistance, Legal Services for the Elderly and Maine Equal Justice.

In Portland, attorneys from Pine Tree and Maine Equal Justice talk to many tenants for the first time on their court date. The lawyers arrive early and set up shop in a small conference room. Research shows that tenants are more likely to stay housed if they have legal representation.

“It is challenging to meet people for the first time and try to give them high-quality legal services,” said Katie McGovern, an attorney at Pine Tree. “But trying to go through that by yourself can be really intimidating and scary.”

A half-dozen landlord attorneys were also there, but the busiest was David Chamberlain. His entire practice is devoted to this area of law, and his clients that day included Port Property Management and Redbank Village. He also showed up early and claimed a hallway cubicle by taping up blue laminated signs that read “Reserved for Chamberlain Law.”

“Contrary to the idea of the big, bad landlord, they’re trying to work with their tenants,” Chamberlain said.

Soon, the courtroom was nearly empty, and the hallway was full again. Two mediators kept their doors closed as they tried to broker deals. People cycled in and out of the lawyers’ makeshift offices. Parties who reached agreements carried their paperwork back to the judge and stood before the bench for a signature.


“The FED process involves law, it involves public policy, it involves politics,” Sherry said. “At its very core, it involves where people live, which is so bound up in emotion.”


Suze and Melanie Quackenbush struggled to pay rent ($1,400 plus utilities) on their one-bedroom apartment in Redbank Village in South Portland while Melanie was out of work this year. They applied for emergency rental assistance in May and found a few months of relief.

But the rent increased to $1,700 shortly before MaineHousing announced in September that federal money for that program was about to run out. The couple quickly got behind.

“Being strapped all the time is really stressful and unfortunate,” said Suze Quackenbush, who works at a call center.

The couple received a seven-day notice to quit for nonpayment and then a court summons. Suze Quackenbush took a paid day off and arrived at the courthouse early on Dec. 8 to talk with a volunteer lawyer. They waited for hours before working out a payment plan for the overdue rent: an extra $200 a month.


Melanie Quackenbush got a new job as a receptionist in October, and her partner felt confident that they will pay off the $2,300 balance, even if it means they’ll be eating ramen noodles for months.

Suze Quackenbush poses for a portrait at home in South Portland’s Redbank Village, where rent for the one-bedroom apartment went up $300 this year. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“I was like, ‘You know, you could have done this a week ago,’ ” Suze Quackenbush said. “I could have gone to work. I’m glad that we reached an agreement, and it does take a load off. But it was kind of frustrating that I had to jump through all these hoops.”

A study from Harvard University found that 41% of Maine tenants are “cost burdened,” which means they are spending more than one-third of their gross income on rent. MaineHousing reported that the median rent for a two-bedroom in Portland in 2020 was $1,880 including utilities, an amount unaffordable to more than 70% of households.

During the last two years, emergency rental assistance was a reliable option for tenants who got behind on their rent. Since that program ended, attorneys on both sides of the negotiations said they have seen more cases involving nonpayment. General Assistance is an option for some, but not all.

“Eviction is just the symptom of the problem,” said Brit Vitalius, president of the Southern Maine Landlord Association. “There became a dependency on temporary COVID funding to prop up the rental market, and then it went away really quickly.”



Boissonneau and her landlord met with a mediator. She pays rent for her three-bedroom on Washington Avenue with a program called Shelter Plus Care, a subsidy for adults who have disabilities and have been homeless. Boissonneau said the mediator told her that she would have just seven days to move out if she took her case to a hearing and lost. Overwhelmed, she agreed to leave by the end of December.

“I felt like I had to take the offer,” Boissonneau said. “It was kind of intimidating.”

Then she talked with McGovern from Pine Tree. Boissonneau and her landlord hovered in the courtroom as McGovern and Sherry discussed the case. Three-month-old Scott spit up on his mother’s sweater, and she wiped the fabric as she listened. Eventually, the landlord and Sherry agreed to extend the deadline to the end of January.

If Boissonneau leaves by that date, the case will be dismissed without an eviction judgment. Her landlord did not respond to multiple messages seeking an interview.

Boissonneau estimated she has applied for 100 apartments of all sizes in southern Maine since she got her notice.

“Either they won’t take my housing (subsidy), or they won’t take my dog,” she said. “It’s very frustrating.”


Attorneys who represent tenants said they used to be able to find a new apartment if they got an extra month to move out even a couple of years ago. Now, three or four months might not be enough.

“There’s been a marked increase in difficulty for tenants of all means finding units,” said Christopher Marot, an attorney at Pine Tree. “Landlords are becoming pickier, and many are saying they won’t accept a subsidy. It seems like it’s a landlord’s market.”


Wendy Harmon found a seat on the courtroom bench. She didn’t come here with a lawyer. Also a real estate agent, Harmon owns 100 apartments in 25 buildings. She and her husband started buying rental properties in the ’70s, and she has been running most of them by herself since he died five years ago. Harmon said she has struggled in recent years with a negative public perception of landlords as greedy and uncaring.

“That’s not the case,” Harmon said. “A lot don’t realize that we know the people by first names. We try to be as helpful as we can.”

She had two cases on the docket that day. The first tenant was Caris, who did not want to use his last name because of his pending immigration case. Caris is 18 years old and a Congolese asylum-seeker, and he and his mother lived in shelters and hotels for months before moving into one of Harmon’s Portland apartments this year. Then his mother left for Canada, and the teenager stayed in Maine. He was not in court because he was at high school, but he was represented by Farnham from Maine Equal Justice.


Caris applied for emergency rental assistance but got behind because of a processing delay. Harmon said the program created “a bookkeeping nightmare” for landlords, and she thinks government resources should have instead been dedicated to creating more housing or establishing more Section 8 vouchers.

They went to court in November, but Harmon got the check and then dismissed the case against Caris in December. Without emergency rental help, Caris will rely on General Assistance, so Harmon moved him to a smaller apartment in the same building that would be more affordable for one person.

Attorneys David Chamberlain, front left, representing a local landlord, and Katie McGovern from Pine Tree Legal Assistance, representing a tenant, wait before District Judge Peter Darvin at the Cumberland County Courthouse. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographe

“He’s a very respectful teenager,” she said. “I hope great things happen for him.”

In an interview with a Lingala interpreter, Caris said he expects to receive his work permit soon and wants to get a job as a mechanic because he likes cars. His apartment is sparsely furnished and clean. He said he likes the space and appreciates that Harmon helped him find a cheaper option.

“The landlord is good to me,” he said.

The second tenant, however, had a different experience. Court documents show Harmon gave him a seven-day notice to quit in October because he was a month behind on rent, was allowing someone not on the lease to live in the apartment and had trash piling up. They made an agreement in November, but Harmon said he didn’t follow it and came back to court in December to get a writ of possession. She didn’t know his plans, but once he was served with the writ, he would have 48 hours to leave.


“It’s not a place that anybody wants to be,” Harmon said. “As much as tenants don’t want to be there, neither do landlords.”


Adding to the feeling of desperation for tenants is the demand on local shelters. As of Dec. 7, Portland was providing emergency shelter for 1,184 people across two shelters and four hotels. That number includes individuals and families with children, and it does not include people who are camping or sleeping outside.

In November and December, the docket included multiple eviction cases from the Comfort Inn and Suites in Scarborough. That hotel was among those being used for overflow shelter space, but the town threatened to revoke its license due to a high number of emergency calls and complaints.

Oriana Farnham from Maine Equal Justice walks back to the gallery after speaking to District Judge Peter Darvin about one of her cases at the Cumberland County Courthouse on Dec. 8. Other attorneys wait in the wings for their cases to be called. For that day in court, there were 97 cases on the docket. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“It keeps me up at night,” said Farnham, the lawyer from Maine Equal Justice. “I don’t know what is going to happen to everybody who is being forced out of a hotel in December in Maine.”

Boissonneau didn’t want the holidays or her daughter’s upcoming birthday to be spoiled by having to move. She felt some relief when McGovern told her she had an extra month to find a place.

“It’s not very long, but it’s better than what they wanted,” Boissonneau said.

But she still did not feel certain that she would find a new apartment. Baby in her arms, she sat on a bench in the hallway and thought about what she would do.

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