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Legislature advances emergency bill that includes housing assistance for asylum seekers

A row of doors at a motel.
Ari Snider
More than 115 asylum seekers living at a roadside motel in Freeport rely on the federal, pandemic-era Emergency Rental Assistance program, which is set to expire at the end of the year.

A key legislative committee advanced a heating assistance bill on Wednesday that also extends funding to support asylum seeking families staying in motels as emergency shelter. And while service organizations had been advocating for a funding extension to avoid mass evictions, long term housing solutions remain unclear.

The emergency relief package includes $21 million for housing assistance, some of which would fund motel housing for asylum seeking families and others experiencing homelessness.

That funding is designed to prevent evictions of households who have been relying on the federal Emergency Rental Assistance program, which is expiring at the end of the year.

Greg Payne is the governor’s housing advisor. Speaking at a hearing on the bill, he made clear that hotel housing is a temporary solution.

"The federal government provided us with a chance to keep people safe during an extraordinary time, that's coming to an end," Payne said, referring to the ERA program. "I think that we do not see the hotels as something that goes beyond April."

Payne says he’s working with housing partners around the state to try to come up with more durable solutions for when this round of temporary funding dries up.

The $21 million for housing assistance is a relatively small portion of the nearly $500 million package. But Mufalo Chitam, executive director of the Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, told the committee that the funding is a crucial lifeline for hundreds of asylum seekers.

"For many immigrant families moving to the U.S. and to Maine, is the only is the only way of survival. And yes, there is no original home for them to return to," she said.

The bill now heads to the full Legislature, which is expected to pick it up in early January.