‘People feel unheard’: Lawmakers search for more answers to Maine’s housing crisis / by Dan Neumann

“It’s a horrible system that I got caught in,” said Lewiston resident Amy Sanchez, who spent three years on a waitlist for a federal Section 8 rental assistance voucher after leaving an abusive marriage. “I was on a waitlist for forever long.”

After navigating a gauntlet of means testing and twice appearing before a judge, she finally was able to secure a voucher and now pays $509 per month in rent. Sanchez also collects $1,700 per month in disability.

“In order to qualify for these programs, you need to have very little income,” she said. “For disability, you can’t work at all. So then you have to go through all of these steps to get help to pay for electricity, the cell phone, the internet, or qualify for food stamps. It’s a horrible way to help low-income people. It’s either all or nothing.”

Sanchez is just one voice in a sea of Mainers struggling to afford shelter. The state continues to grapple with a shortage of about 20,000 affordable housing units, with an estimated 27,000 Maine households on the waitlist for Section 8 vouchers.

Sanchez ran for Lewiston City Council last year and lives downtown in the Tree Streets neighborhood, where the city says 49% of residents are living in poverty. She says some of her neighbors have given up hope that skyrocketing housing costs will be addressed by elected officials at the local, state or federal level.

“I just know a lot of the people I’ve talked with, who are trying to get help with housing, the biggest thing they have to say is ‘nobody cares,’” she said. “People feel unheard.”

Even Mainers with vouchers can’t find housing

Sanchez said she has spoken to neighbors who have recently received Section 8 vouchers who can’t use them because they can’t find landlords willing to accept the vouchers. 

Activists with Housing Justice Maine drop a sign over I-95 last year calling on state lawmakers to create affordable housing. | Beacon

Maine State Housing Authority spokesperson Scott Thistle says it’s an inventory problem. He said the state has granted vouchers to more than 300 Mainers who currently cannot find an apartment to rent.

Last year, state lawmakers directed a portion of federal COVID relief funds to be spent on the housing shortage. Thistle said the state was able to clear some of the Section 8 waitlist, but new people have since been added, making little dent in the overall number of Mainers waiting for assistance. 

MaineHousing is on track to build nearly 1,000 units this year — more affordable units than any year in the past. But 1,000 new units still seems like a drop in the bucket considering the need. 

“If you do the math, it’s going to take us 20 years,” Thistle said, referring to the estimated demand for 20,000 affordable units. “The scope of the problem is enormous. Every state in the country is in a similar boat. It’s a national housing crisis and building that inventory up is a huge challenge.”

Thistle explained that another constraint is that Maine doesn’t have enough available builders to keep up with the construction projects that have been funded.

In addition to the dearth of rental units in Maine, homes for sale are also scarce, often substandard, and prices have climbed in many areas dramatically, partially spurred by a land rush by out-of-state buyers during the pandemic. Maine’s median single-family home sale price was $299,000 in December 2021, a 38% increase over the median price of $216,900 in February 2020. As a result, people are taking on more debt to buy a house. 

State Dems need to take the lead on housing 

Mainers rally at the State House in 2021 for housing funding. | Beacon

Last year, the Maine State Legislature, with Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate, considered about 50 bills related to the housing crisis, with several proposals being put off to this year. 

Several major housing investments have already been made using money from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), which allocated $4.5 billion in stimulus funds to Maine in 2021. Those investments included $20 million for the construction of new units using strong labor standards, $10 million for initiatives to address the escalating issue of homelessness, and $1.5 million for providing housing navigation services to help those with rental subsidies access housing.

Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, announced on Wednesday that she will tap another $50 million from federal relief to build more housing. The governor’s proposal includes $10 million that is now available to MaineHousing for the construction of 150 single-family homes, with an additional $40 million becoming available later this year, when additional ARPA funds are released.

“The pandemic has put the price of homes, and the dream of home ownership, out of reach for too many hardworking families. It’s time we fixed that,” Mills said in a statement. 

While the legislature made long-needed investments in housing last year, some lawmakers are now stressing that far more action is required this session.

“27,000+ Maine households on the waiting list for Section 8 housing assistance & eviction filings in the 300-400 [per month]. What policies has the state and congressional delegation put forward?” state Rep. Victoria Morales (D-South Portland) tweeted on Jan. 24. 

On the federal level, with Congressional Democrats’ social spending agenda stalled, some advocates are now looking to Democratic-controlled state legislatures to address the national housing crisis. State budgets were buoyed last year by $350 billion in federal ARPA money, which may be the last influx of federal support the states see in a while if Congressional Democrats lose their majorities in 2022. 

Maine revenue forecasters are predicting a $822 million surplus for the two-year budget cycle ending in mid-2023, partially as a result of the ARPA relief as well as a dramatic increase in wealth among the state’s highest earners. 

Mills has signaled a desire to try to get Republican support for her supplemental budget this session by redistributing a portion of the surplus to taxpayers. But progressive advocates say that a one-off payout would be a missed opportunity to fund longstanding needs like housing.

New construction and zoning reform will be priorities this session

Areas for further funding this session include a bill by Rep. Rebecca Millett (D-Cape Elizabeth) that would require higher energy efficiency standards on all new affordable housing construction.

Housing advocates are also calling for the full funding of a bill by Morales that would require the Housing Authority to establish and administer the Maine Rental Assistance and Voucher Guarantee Pilot to assist individuals with the cost of rent and incentivize landlords to work with rental assistance programs in the state. The program would require $8.5 million in funding.

Last year, Mills signed a bill sponsored by the House Speaker Ryan Fecteau (D-Biddeford) creating a commission to address the web of various zoning and land use ordinances and state laws that are preventing new construction from coming to fruition. 

Fecteau will be introducing another bill to adopt the commission’s recommendations, which include allowing accessory dwelling units to be built in all zoning districts currently zoned for single-family homes, and prohibiting municipal growth caps on the construction of new housing.

Another proposal by House Majority Whip Rachel Talbot Ross (D-Portland) would require municipalities to keep at least 10% of their housing stock affordable. Failure to meet that goal would trigger an expedited permitting process for affordable housing development.

The proposed zoning reforms could become a flashpoint in the legislature on the issue of local control. But Democratic leadership says the housing crisis must be addressed from all angles.

“Addressing this crisis must be multi-faceted,” Fecteau said in a public hearing in support of the zoning reform commission last year. “This is a statewide problem. There is not a single county in our state where a full-time worker earning the minimum wage can afford a typical two-bedroom apartment.”

Top photo: A woman who has experienced housing insecurity speaks at a rally at the State House in June 2021. | BeaconFacebookTwitterShare

Author: Dan Neumann studied journalism at Colorado State University before beginning his career as a community newspaper reporter in Denver. He reported on the Global North’s interventions in Africa, including documentaries on climate change, international asylum policy and U.S. militarization on the continent before returning to his home state of Illinois to teach community journalism on Chicago’s West Side. He now lives in Portland. Dan can be reached at dan(at)mainebeacon.com.

Source: Maine Beacon, January 28, 2022, https://mainebeacon.com/people-feel-unheard-lawmakers-search-for-more-answers-to-maines-housing-crisis/