Rising evictions worsen housing crisis in Knox County

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Oct. 18—An onslaught of evictions over the last two months has compounded an already crisis-level housing problem in Knox County.

With about 80 notices going out within the last two months, evictions in the small coastal county have spiked since a pandemic-borne federal moratorium was lifted in August. Statewide, evictions haven't increased dramatically since the moratorium was lifted. But in Knox County, the return of evictions comes at a time when the area is already feeling the effects of a pandemic-fueled real estate boom and a rising affordability problem.

The confluence of factors is driving up homelessness in the county, where housing officials say they are seeing unprecedented levels of need, including people who have nowhere else to live but the woods.

"We've been feeling this for months and months, and so the eviction piece and the moratorium being lifted was just yet another fast moving curveball in all of this," Knox County Homeless Coalition Social Services Program Director Molly Feeney said. "It is increasing [the need], it's not the only piece."

In Maine, county sheriff's offices are responsible for the service of paperwork related to the eviction process. Typically, Knox County Sheriff Tim Carroll says his department handles paperwork for about 10 eviction cases per month.

Over the last two months though, there've been about 80 eviction cases, in varying stages of the process.

The number of cases is higher than the department has ever seen, Carroll said. While he hopes the cases begin to slow, Carroll said he feels the problem will likely persist.

"I think, overall, we're going to be here for a little bit," Carroll said.

The rise in evictions has contributed to an unprecedented level of people seeking assistance from the Knox County Homeless Coalition, Feeney said. The organization runs the only shelter in Knox, Waldo and Lincoln counties, but also works on a more holistic level to provide services that address matters related to the housing insecurity issue, like mental health and job support.

There are currently 15 to 20 families on the waitlist for its 22-bed shelter in Rockport, the Hospitality House. The organization has placed another 15 families in local hotels while they await a longer-term option. There are currently about 50 families on a waitlist for general services, Feeney said.

For people finding themselves in need for the first time, help isn't immediately available. There is currently a 12 to 14 week wait time for prospective clients to begin receiving case management services. In the interim, the organization is working to provide those who are waiting with emergency supplies like food and blankets.

This year, more than 60 percent of the people the homeless coalition has worked with fall under the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development definition of homeless, which means living without a safe shelter, Feeney said. That's up from 30 percent last year

Calls for emergency assistance have increased by about 80 percent in recent months.

"There is a direct relationship between the phone calls we are getting and these evictions," Feeney said.

The evictions themselves are also often more complicated than a tenant simply failing to pay rent, according to Carroll and the Knox County Homeless Coalition.

A big contributor to the problem, they say, is the number of property sales that occurred in Knox County over the last year. In some cases, people are being evicted after a new owner decides to change the use of a building. Evictions are also occurring when a lease is up for renewal and the landlord increases the rent beyond what the tenant can afford.

"I think it's important for the community to know that there are also situations that are simply out of everybody's control right now when it comes to the increasing rent," Feeney said.

Going into the pandemic, the lack of affordable housing in the region was already a problem, but it has since been exacerbated by the real estate boom. Some of the families the homeless coalition works with have ultimately had to move out of the area because there is simply no affordable option for them locally .

"I really believe that because our little part of the midcoast is so beautiful and is such an attractive place for people to come to, it always has been. But with COVID and the migration that we're seeing to rural, beautiful, low population density areas like this, I think the desirability of it is it's blessing and is challenging right now," Knox County Homeless Coalition director Stephanie Primm said.

The type of need the coalition is seeing has also changed over the last year. People experiencing homelessness in the county, historically, have been able to couch surf or find temporary shelter. But now, Feeney said the organization is seeing more literal homelessness, with some people being unable to find shelter and having to live in the woods.

"It is easily once a week that we are deploying services to remote areas, to the woods," Feeney said.

With winter fast approaching, the increase in people living outside is cause for concern.

"We know how quick [the weather] can turn here in Maine. As the sheriff, it's a public safety, public risk measurement that I'm concerned about here in the county," Carroll said.

Primm and Feeney also stressed the immense toll that homelessness and housing insecurity can have on a person's mental health — a pervasive issue they say has gotten worse in recent years.

"Panic then leads to poor mental health and poor mental health leads to irrational decisions and there is really just this perfect storm just connected to the human behavior around this," Feeney said

The rising problem has gotten the attention of the Knox County Commissioners, who are currently considering how to spend its $7.7 million pool of federal relief funding. Commissioners asked the sheriff to meet with the Knox County Homeless Coalition to determine if there's any way the county can contribute funding to help alleviate the immediate need.

The coalition has already asked the county for about $4 million in federal funding, to go toward a slate of projects that would bring upwards of about 50 new housing units to the area.

To address the immediate crisis, Primm said the coalition is considering how to procure more funding for temporary housing — like motel rooms — and perhaps the establishment of an emergency shelter. The coalition will also need to increase its staff to support the level of need they are seeing.

With awareness of the crisis on the rise, Primm and Feeney said the county is moving in the right direction. However, they said that any short-term solution to the current crisis must also be done in tandem with long-term planning and investment.

"We're really grateful when we have the funds to be able to help [get] somebody in a motel temporarily," Feeney said. "But we can't sign leases for motel rooms. And we really have to have an end game that is included in our triage."

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