Now that leaders in Augusta and Washington have responded, we must design programs that help the people who need it the most.
Over the past several decades, the lack of affordable rental housing throughout Maine and the United States has taken on such a level of intractability and pervasiveness that it has come perilously close to being an accepted norm. Long waiting lists, growing homelessness and families living constantly on the brink of catastrophe — these are the everyday fruits of a systemic imbalance between income and housing costs that metastasize across various elements of people’s lives and jeopardize their health, education and economic futures.
Thankfully, leaders in Augusta and Washington, D.C., have begun to stir something that has proved elusive for far too long in the effort to address our housing affordability crisis: hope.
Last year, Gov. Janet Mills and House Speaker Ryan Fecteau teamed with leading Republicans, including Sen. Matt Pouliot and Rep. Sawin Millett, to create the most valuable policy tool in Maine history to increase our supply of affordable homes: the Maine Affordable Housing Tax Credit. That program will provide a much-needed jolt to the anemic 230 new units-per-year pace of affordable housing production that Maine has averaged over the past seven years.
Gov. Mills and the Legislature have now approved $50 million of American Recovery Plan funds for affordable workforce housing. There have also been hundreds of millions of dollars dedicated to emergency rental assistance during the pandemic, and eviction moratoriums have minimized displacement. This new attention on affordable housing is almost dizzying to those of us who are used to begging for budgetary crumbs and for simple acknowledgment that we have, in fact, an affordable-housing problem.
Despite all of this progress, there is much work still to be done. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, 65,904 Maine households were paying over half their income on housing before the pandemic. These residents, who mostly have very low incomes, desperately needed affordable housing but didn’t have it. Then the pandemic hit and exacerbated the situation. Furthermore, the shallow pool of affordable housing previously available to low-income renters has been depleted even further by skyrocketing home prices, which has forced first-time homebuyers to rent instead of buy.
Now that our affordable-housing problem has been recognized and our elected officials have responded, we must design programs that provide help to the people who need it the most. This not a simple task since the new allocations of funding for affordable housing are enough to help only a fraction of the Mainers who need it. There are some who are adequately housed despite not having their ideal homes; for example, moderate- to high-income renters who have a decent affordable apartment but want to buy, and renters who would like to be in a larger apartment or different location. It is tempting to allocate funding to these groups, but we cannot prioritize them over the tens of thousands of people who are living in unsafe conditions and paying more than half of their income on rent — or who are unhoused altogether.
In a perfect world, we can help everyone, but in the reality of our finite resources in Maine, we need to help those who need it most: people who could not otherwise live in safe, high-quality and affordable homes. Maine needs to embark on a campaign to build 20,000 affordable rental homes for those with the lowest incomes and for those paying over 50 percent of their income on housing. One thousand new affordable rental homes for 20 years will get us there.
Let’s hold ourselves accountable.
By Dana Totman, Avesta Housing President and CEO