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Advocates Weigh In On Solutions To Maine's Eviction Crisis

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Morse says Dobbie and her boys went first to one homeless shelter and then, in May, landed in Lewiston at the Hope Haven Gospel Mission which runs the largest shelter and soup kitchen in the area.

All this week we’ve been reporting on how evictions are financially and emotionally costly for landlords and tenants. Both parties generally want the same thing: the rent to be paid in full and on time. But as housing costs and rents continue to rise faster than wages, low income advocates say policy changes are necessary to support thousands of at-risk Mainers.

This is the fifth in our series, "Eviction: Life Unpacked"

By Susan Sharon, Maine Public    August 10, 2018

A recent report from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development says that families who experience eviction “are more likely to suffer material hardship, report depressive symptoms, be in poor health, move frequently and move to higher poverty and higher crime neighborhoods.”

They’re also at risk for becoming homeless. That was the case for Kimberly Dobbie of Farmington.

David Morse is an attorney with Pine Tree Legal Assistance, which helped Dobbie win her case at eviction court. He says, “She first came to our attention in September, 2017 when she was being evicted by her landlord.”

After that, Morse says, Dobbie was able to remain in her home with her twin 11-year-old boys for several more months. But then her landlord attempted to evict her a second time. Once again, she reached out to Pine Tree Legal for help.

“We reviewed her case and found that she had several good defenses, and we were prepared to defend her in court,” says Morse.

But on the day she was due in court, Morse says Dobbie had some personal complications, including not being able to find someone to care for her kids, one of whom is disabled — so she never showed.

"So she was defaulted, a judgement entered against her for eviction and she was eventually made to leave,” says Morse.

Morse says Dobbie and her boys went first to one homeless shelter and then, in May, landed in Lewiston at the Hope Haven Gospel Mission which runs the largest shelter and soup kitchen in the area.

Then on a Sunday morning, July 15, as Dobbie stepped outside a laundromat, she was attacked. Police say she was stabbed to death by a man she had met at the shelter. Her two boys witnessed the attack through a window. Friends of Dobbie's later told the Lewiston Sun Journal that Albert Flick, previously convicted of murdering his wife in 1979, had been stalking Dobbie. She never reported his behavior to police.

"In a situation like this — this is obviously an extreme situation — but people who become homeless are incredibly vulnerable to all the bad things that can happen to someone,” says Frank D'Alessandro of Pine Tree Legal.

D’Alessandro has been working with clients like Dobbie for 30 years. He says her story serves as a stark illustration of why it's important to keep low income families like Dobbie's in their homes. And the key, he says, is to make housing affordable.

"So for housing to be affordable, the rent has to be affordable for the tenant on a long term, sustainable basis, and the rent has to be sufficient so a good landlord can maintain the premises so they're safe and secure for the tenant,” says D’Alessandro.

Advocates say what that means is an expansion of housing assistance like Section 8, the federal program under which qualified tenants pay no more than one-third of their income on rent. Historically, only one-in-four qualified applicants receives it, and the wait can take years.

"The need for programs like Section 8 housing where you pay one-third of your income far exceeds the capacity of those programs currently,” says Rob Liscord, the interim director of Veteran Housing Services at the Preble Street Resource Center in Portland.

 For Kimberly Dobbie things had been looking up. According to the Lewiston Sun Journal, she'd received a housing assistance voucher and was just days away from leaving the shelter and moving into an apartment in Jay before she was killed. Her twin boys, Dylan and Cole, are now living with her mother in Massachusetts, and a GoFundMe page to help with their expenses has been set up in their names.

For Kimberly Dobbie things had been looking up. According to the Lewiston Sun Journal, she'd received a housing assistance voucher and was just days away from leaving the shelter and moving into an apartment in Jay before she was killed. Her twin boys, Dylan and Cole, are now living with her mother in Massachusetts, and a GoFundMe page to help with their expenses has been set up in their names.

Every year Liscord’s program helps to support 400 veterans’ families in Maine who are homeless or at risk of homelessness because of something like an eviction or foreclosure. He says the goal is to find them permanent housing, but even if they do have financial assistance, Liscord says there's another hurdle to clear.

"We do work with families who do get vouchers and then they are not able to find landlords that are willing to accept those vouchers,” he says. “So that's another challenge that needs to be considered and addressed."

Liscord says some landlords aren't willing to make the repairs necessary to get their apartments to pass the housing quality inspectIon required for the Section 8 program. Or, he says, they just don't want to deal with the administrative burden. The need for affordable, safe housing isn't just affecting low-income families and veterans, it's also a problem for seniors and for those on disability. Nearly 10,000 seniors are currently on waiting lists for housing around the state.

But Greg Payne of the Maine Low Income Housing CoalitIon says there's a serious shortage.

"Generally, we're able to create 200-250 affordable units per year,” says Payne. “But obviously, if you then compare that with the thousands of people who are on waiting lists or who need affordable housing, that kind of pace is not nearly good enough."

Payne says the release of a $15 million housing bond approved by Maine voters in 2015 would help, but Gov. Paul LePage has refused to sign off on it. Other states have also used low income housing tax credits to subsidize the development of affordable housing and Payne says that will be something his group takes up with the next legislature.

But without an expansion of housing voucher programs or subsidized development of affordable housing, evictions are likely to continue for thousands of Maine renters.

Rob Liscord of Preble Street says many of those are tenants at will who are being evicted for what's known as "no cause," something he'd like to see ended.

"The toll that takes on someone who's set up and established a home for 20 years, the emotional toll, and that's not even counting the financial toll of coming up with the first and last and security for a new place when you're on a limited income, it's a really common problem,” says Liscord. “And we've worked with households and individuals who've fallen into literal homelessness from a 'no cause eviction.'”

Whatever the reasons for evictions, Liscord says that if it leads to homelessness, it's traumatic.

For Kimberly Dobbie things had been looking up. According to the Lewiston Sun Journal, she'd received a housing assistance voucher and was just days away from leaving the shelter and moving into an apartment in Jay before she was killed. Her twin boys, Dylan and Cole, are now living with her mother in Massachusetts, and a GoFundMe page to help with their expenses has been set up in their names.