As Maine pursues housing projects for new immigrants, local groups call for more long term solutions
In a residential neighborhood at the former Naval Air Station in Brunswick, dump trucks and cement mixers lumbered across a construction site earlier this month, as workers prepared to pour a foundation for a 12-unit apartment building
The company running this project is Developers Collaborative, and the plan is to build 60 rental units that will initially be reserved for asylum seekers. Company founder Kevin Bunker said MaineHousing has agreed to provide at least two years of rental assistance.
"Basically, for two years, I agree to rent to asylum seekers. And in return, they have an escrow account with the rent that it takes to run the property," he said.
It's one piece of a state-supported effort to create more long-term housing for asylum seekers, at a time when hundreds of new immigrants are staying in motels as emergency shelter.
Funding for motel shelters was extended in the governor’s emergency heating and housing bill. But in testimony on that measure, Greg Payne, the governor’s housing advisor, made clear that the funding is temporary.
"We have already begun that conversation with our partners on the ground to help them understand now that come May 1, there's not going to be money for hotels," Payne told a legislative committee taking testimony on the energy relief package.
Instead, Payne said there will be help in funding efforts to address the housing crisis at the local level, such as the Brunswick development, and others like it that will be reserved initially for asylum seekers.
Victoria Morales, with the Quality Housing Coalition, said asylum seekers face particularly high barriers to securing housing, including a months-long wait period before they’re eligible to work, and the challenge of navigating unfamiliar systems.
"Applying for low income housing tax credit housing is tricky, it's hard to do," she said. "You have to have access to a computer, you have to understand the English language and be able to write it."
Morales said some 130 units have been approved or are under construction that will be reserved specifically for asylum seekers in southern Maine, but that's not nearly enough to solve the statewide problem. As funding for motels is phased out, Morales said her organization is scrambling to find landlords willing to work with General Assistance rental guidelines.
"It is the only program to pay for rent for asylum seekers right now. They don't qualify for Section 8," Morales said.
At the same time, some groups say they're trying to break the cycle of moving from one funding cliff to the next.
"I think this is the difficulty — we have been constantly reacting. And what we're trying to do now is plan proactively for the future so that we don't have to be in this situation, again," said Belinda Ray, director of strategic partnerships at the Greater Portland Council of Governments. She said part of the answer could be a permanent transitional housing campus of modular homes to take the place of motels.
"If we had our own transitional housing units that we could use, it would decrease the cost, it would centralize people in one area or two areas," she said.
Ray said the goal is to build up to 200 units, and potential development locations in the Portland area are being evaluated.
"And people could receive services right there and have access to everything they need to integrate into our communities and our workforce," she said.
Ray estimated the project would cost around $43 million, which she said could be met through a combination of low interest loans from MaineHousing, tax credits, federal funding, and donations.
And while Ray said this transitional housing infrastructure could help the state manage future emergencies, it's still at least 18 to 24 months away.
At the former Naval Air Station in Brunswick, meanwhile, workers earlier this month poured a concrete foundation for one of the five apartment buildings that will be reserved initially for new immigrants.
These 60 units are expected to be move-in ready by early summer.