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New rental relief program is the latest in a slew housing bills up for consideration in Legislature

In this Nov. 7, 2017, file photo, a "For Rent: sign hangs outside a Portland building.
Troy R. Bennett
In this Nov. 7, 2017, file photo, a "For Rent" sign hangs outside a Portland building.

As federal funds have dried up, state lawmakers are considering a proposal that would create a new rental assistance program for Maine households.

It is the latest in a slew of housing proposals up for consideration in the Legislature this session.

Applicants would have to earn no more than 30% of the area's median income to be eligible, and would pay 30% of their wages toward rent, according to the legislation, sponsored by Rep. Cheryl Golek, D-Harpswell.

The program would be funded through graduated increases in the Maine real estate transfer tax.

Frank D'Alessandro of Maine Equal Justice said an increase on transfer taxes is a reasonable tool to help extremely low-income households.

"While Maine's housing crisis has become worse, property values have increased during the pandemic in every county across the state," he said during a public hearing Friday. "We have to confront the fact that gains for some have resulted in losses for others and take steps to end the rental housing crisis."

MaineHousing estimated some 21,000 people could be eligible for rent relief, but the agency said it's concerned that increased real estate transfer taxes won't be enough to pay for the program.

A separate bill from House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross of Portland also calls for the use of real estate transfer tax revenues to pay for a statewide "housing first" program, which has support from Gov. Janet Mills and was included in a "budget change" proposal released earlier this week.

Yet most of the debate from advocates, landlords and others on Friday centered around ways to prevent discrimination against those who have housing vouchers or general assistance benefits.

"I see these people suffering," said April Tomah, a housing navigator for Wabanaki Health and Wellness. "They have a voucher in hand, and they are looking and looking and looking. And they'll get approved, but it gets rented out from under them, because they have a voucher."

Several others told similar stories. Landlords testified against the bill, arguing that it should be their choice whether to rent to prospective tenants with housing vouchers. They also said that a requirement in the bill to charge affordable rates for 10% of their units would discourage investment in housing.