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Housing advocates count legislative wins, but say they're still not enough

The Hope House Health and Living Center on Corporate Drive in Bangor.
Linda Coan O'Kresik
The Hope House Health and Living Center on Corporate Drive in Bangor. 

Housing was a major priority for the 131st Maine Legislature. This session brought many wins, allowing developers to chip away at Maine's housing production goals and advocates to help those facing homelessness and tenants struggling to pay rent.

But Maine needs about 84,000 new homes by the end of the decade. And advocates acknowledge that despite historic investments in housing over the last two years, they're not enough.

The supplemental budget that state lawmakers passed earlier this week includes $76 million for affordable and emergency housing initiatives.

More than one-third of those funds will go toward what legislators saw as a top priority this session — building more homes.

"The best way to address the affordable housing crisis is to increase supply, and that's what were working toward," said BJ McCollister, policy director for the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition.

Demand for subsidies to build income-restricted units remains high. The Legislature included a total of $20 million for rural affordable rental housing program and Maine's Low Income Housing Tax Credit Program. McCollister said developers have projects lined up and are ready to take advantage of the new funds.

But the work of chipping away at Maine's housing stock remains slow and expensive.

"We've invested a lot of money in building, which we absolutely need to do," said Kathy Kilrain del Rio, advocacy and programs director with Maine Equal Justice. "But that's going to take years, and in some cases, many years to come to fruition, and people right now need help staying in their homes."

A new two-year, $18 million rental relief pilot program should bridge those needs, Kilrain del Rio said. The program is designed to help low-income families who don't have a Section 8 housing voucher or general assistance but are struggling to make ends meet.

It will be up to MaineHousing to draft the program's rules and administer the pilot. But qualifying families should be able receive up to $800 a month to help pay rent.

The program comes after a more than 16% surge in the number of evictions last year. But Craig Saddlemire, a development organization with the Raise-Op Cooperative in Lewiston, said he's hopeful the pilot will provide some relief.

"It's going to go a long way toward helping stabilize people who would otherwise be at risk of homelessness," he said.

The supplemental budget also authorizes $7.5 million for Maine's five low-barrier homeless shelters over the next three years.

Low-barrier shelters don't require background checks or sobriety. And because many occupants bring untreated mental health challenges and complex medical conditions with them, low-barrier shelters are more expensive to operate and have been struggling to stay afloat.

Under the budget agreement, each of Maine's remaining low-barrier shelters would receive roughly $500,000 annually for the next three years.

The new funds will help to some degree, said Dave Sovetsky, program director for the Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter in Waterville.

"But at the same time it doesn't entirely close the gap or allow our budget to grow to meet the increasing demand," he said.

The shelter will apply for grants and expand fundraising efforts to keep its doors open. But Sovetksy said the state should continue a conversation about how to keep these shelters up and running.

"Low barrier shelters need to be considered critical infrastructure," he said. "There's just such a need out there."

The 56-bed shelter in Waterville is full every night, as are other adult shelters throughout Maine, Sovetksy said. The Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter has also been running an overnight winter warming center, which also serves about 20-to-40 people. But that will close at the end of the month, and Sovetsky said he worries people will have no place to go.

While housing advocates said they were largely pleased with what was accomplished, there were a few disappointments.

Lawmakers passed a measure that will increase the amount of state historic tax credits that developers can take in one year to rehabilitate old buildings into housing. But the bill still needs to be funded, and it's not yet clear whether the Legislature will reconvene to work through the long list of housing bills and other proposals that are sitting on the appropriations table.

Saddlemire said he hoped lawmakers had acted on better protections for tenants facing discrimination. The 131st Legislature has made historic investments in housing, but it's still not enough.

"I hope that the historic levels of investment in housing should not be viewed as, 'ok, we've done housing now, we can move on to other things,'" Saddlemire said. "There's other important issues, but housing is going to remain a critical one. The problem is huge, and that means the solutions need to be huge as well."