Tenants back far-reaching housing assistance bill as Maine faces affordability crisis / by Evan Popp

Belinda Vemba of Westbrook and Jodie Hill of Waterville waiting to testify Friday | Beacon

Originally published in the Maine Beacon on May 12, 2023

Citing a worsening housing crisis that features skyrocketing costs, an increasing number of evictions and a lack of sufficient emergency assistance, tenants and advocates implored lawmakers on Friday to pass a bill that will help more Mainers stay in their homes and protect renters from discrimination. 

LD 1710, sponsored by Rep. Cheryl Golek (D-Harpswell), is a wide-ranging measure that would allocate $75.5 million in 2023-24 and $75.5 million more in 2024-25 to addressing the housing crisis — the kind of investment proponents believe is necessary given the scope of the problem. The bill was heard by lawmakers on Friday in a public hearing before the Joint Select Committee on Housing. 

A key aspect of the legislation — dubbed the Housing Opportunities For Maine, or HOME, Act — is providing rental assistance for low-income families by establishing a state-run housing voucher program, which would have the effect of clearing current lengthy waitlists for Section 8 vouchers. 

Currently, there are around 15,000 people on waitlists for housing vouchers in the state. Golek said ending that waitlist would allow tens of thousands of low-income people to only have to use 30% of their income on rent, a more manageable proportion than what many are currently paying. 

The measure creates the Maine Rental Assistance and Guarantee Program under the Maine State Housing Authority to carry out the rental assistance initiative. 

“Passing the HOME Act would play a significant role in preventing eviction and homelessness and stabilizing housing for thousands of Mainers,” Golek said Friday.

Along with providing people with funds, the bill would also improve legal protections for tenants by prohibiting discrimination by a landlord against a person because they participate in a rental assistance program, such as the Section 8 voucher program. 

Although discrimination against housing voucher-holders is already outlawed in Maine, a court ruling in 2007 opened up a loophole that LD 1710 is attempting to address. Multiple people testifying on Friday said that it is currently difficult to obtain housing from landlords using a voucher, with Golek noting that the issue affects people of color in particular. Advocates also noted that 19 other states have passed statutes outlawing discrimination based on the source of someone’s income, which has resulted in a de-concentration of poverty and an increased ability for people to access rental assistance in those places. 

An additional aspect of the bill requires an owner of more than 10 units of residential property to ensure at least 10% of units qualify as affordable housing. Under Golek’s bill, landlords would receive reimbursement in the form of a tax credit if they experience a loss of income from complying with those requirements. 

To generate funding, the HOME Act would amend the state’s real estate transfer tax to make it more progressive, meaning more lucrative real estate sales would face a steeper tax than transactions for a lower amount. Specifically, under the bill, the real estate transfer tax would rise from $2.20 for each $500 on a transaction where the overall price is less than the median sales price in that county to $4.40 for each $500 on a transaction where the sales price is $1 million or more and includes levels in between those prices as well. 

Bill receives backing from advocates and Mainers in need

Given the desperate need for housing in the state — with 40% of Maine renters considered cost-burdened, homelessness on the rise and a shortage of about 20,000 affordable housing units — advocates said approving LD 1710 is crucial. 

Others agreed. Outside the hearing room Friday, dozens of people from across the state waited for their chance to speak in favor of the bill. Many of them are facing financial insecurity and compared their experiences with housing instability and with waiting for a Section 8 unit to open up.

Karina Beadling, who was accompanied by her 2-year-old son Roam, said she waited for five years to get a Section 8 voucher but was unable to find a place that would accept it. She finally got housing in Belfast through New Hope Midcoast.

She told Beacon she had been up in the middle of the night with her son and contemplated not coming to testify Friday, but ultimately decided she had to show up. 

“This is why we’re in this position, because it’s hard” for people who are dealing with these issues to get politically involved.

Karina Beadling and son Roam from Belfast | Beacon

“For every person who’s here,” Beadling said, “there’s a thousand people at home freaking out about their housing.” She said when she was trying to get away from an abusive relationship and couldn’t find housing she “felt powerless.”

Beadling felt it was important to speak at the hearing because she was finally given an opportunity to get housing and wanted to “pay it forward” and help the many others in the state who haven’t been so lucky. 

Jodie Hill, who serves as co-chair of the new Waterville Tenants Association, said she came to speak on behalf of her daughter and granddaughter, who are both currently homeless and living in a motel. She said her daughter works as a substitute at Educare, and started out making only $14 an hour. 

“There’s nothing she can afford,” she said. “People’s wages don’t match what people are charging for housing today. To survive [with a rent that is] even a thousand a month, that’s a job that pays $30 an hour. I don’t know of any jobs that pay that.”

“It feels like us tenants are just taking it and taking it,” Hill added of the need for LD 1710. “There’s homeless people everywhere like never before that I’ve seen. Some are working but can’t afford the rents. They’re only making enough to get groceries and pay for medical care.” 

Another person in favor of the bill, Sandy Joy of Bangor, said she has also seen the brutal nature of Maine’s housing crisis up close. 

“I’m in a position where I can’t afford to purchase a home, I can’t afford a rent, and maintain a standard of living. I live with this every day and it’s frightening. It’s frightening to me,” she told the committee. “Please pass the bill. We need to invest in more than building housing. We need to help Mainers to be able to afford a safe place to live.” 

LD 1710, however, spurred opposition from many landlords and real estate interests, who particularly opposed the provisions meant to prevent discrimination against housing voucher-holders.

Daniel Bernier of Central Maine Apartment Owners Association complained that the bill’s regulations on real estate owners would essentially mandate that “landlords sign a contract with a government agency, which they have absolutely no negotiating power over.” 

Bernier, however, acknowledged that many landlords choose not to accept vouchers. He said there is an ebb and flow to voucher acceptance by real estate owners. When prices are more reasonable, he said, more landlords accept vouchers. When costs rise, some landlords stop taking them, Bernier said, arguing that they should have the right to make that decision.

LD 1710 is just the latest in a slate of housing bills introduced by lawmakers this session that advocates hope will help alleviate the state’s dire affordability and homelessness crises. Other measures in that list include bills to protect tenants and a measure to encourage the development of a “housing first” approach to address chronic homelessness. In addition, Gov. Janet Mills has proposed over $90 million in funding in her budget plan meant to help with housing needs in the state.  

Evan Popp studied journalism at Ithaca College and interned at the Progressive magazine, ThinkProgress and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. He then worked for the Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper before joining Beacon. Evan can be reached at evan@mainebeacon.com.