AUGUSTA, Maine — The state is facing a serious shortage of affordable housing with more than 38,000 Mainers paying more than half their income for a roof over their head.
That's the finding of a draft report by a working group put together by the Maine State Housing Authority, which paints a stark picture for low-income Mainers.
The number of Mainers paying more than half their income for rent has gone up 44 percent in the last 8 years. Only about a quarter of those eligible for housing assistance are getting it. And the waiting list for rental assistance, which now holds more than 20,000 names, continues to grow.
The panel heard public comment on Monday on its findings, which suggest the problem faces the young and the old, city dwellers and those in rural Maine.
"I know many people in my community who pay more than half their monthly income on housing," says Kandie Cleaves, from Garland in rural Piscataquis County. "That often leaves many with a bit over $100 to pay everything else — food, utilities, transportation, health care costs. Many are at risk of homelessness because their housing costs are just unsustainable."
Ashley Medina from Lewiston says she's grateful for the community support she and her two children received after the apartment house they were living in burned down. But she says the lack of acceptable housing has forced her family into a bad situation.
"My family was placed in an apartment after the fire when I first moved in," she says. "I liked it because it was quiet. Now the police are around all the time and I don't want my kids subjected to this. I have cockroaches in my home."
And 71-year-old Cathy Rondoni says she and her ailing husband, who rely on Social Security, faced a tedious and frustrating task in finding a place to live.
"It was a horrible experience, and one I never saw coming," she says. "A person should be able to go out, look at apartments and find a decent one they can afford and rent it."
John Gallagher, director of the Maine State Housing Authority, chairs the working group. He says says Mainers are struggling with high housing costs in many areas of the state. And he says the ability of the Authority to address the problem has been cut by both Congress and the Legislature.
"When you look at the needs, the needs are so great that our ability to address it is limited by the funding we get both from the feds and the state HOME fund," he says.
The Housing Opportunities for Maine Fund, or HOME, receives its cash from the real estate transfer tax, and the Legislature has shifted some of that money to other budget priorities, so the Authority is getting about $6 million a year less than it would have received.
Gallagher says the agency is doing what it can with existing resources — for example, retraining some of its housing subsidy workers to act as case managers.
"We are stepping out of our normal role of just developing housing or helping develop housing," he says. "We are trying to provide more and more services for folks to keep them stably housed."
Gallagher says he's also waiting to see what happens with housing funding as part of the current budget fight in Congress.
Meanwhile, he says the panel has not finalized its recommendations, but he hopes the Legislature will consider the need to develop more low-income housing across the state.
He says there are a number of options available for leveraging the low-interest financing capacity of the Authority, such as tax credits for developers.