Every day we get another reminder of just how bad the housing crisis is in Maine, and how the only sustainable way out of it is to build more housing.
This time, it was news that MaineHousing won’t take any more applications for emergency rental assistance until it hears whether the federal government will honor a request for an additional $55 million.
The program already has spent about $275 million, helping nearly 34,000 households even after the organization tightened eligibility. However, another 11,000 applications are pending.
The money spent by the program represents the difference between what Maine residents are paying in rent and what they can afford. The demand is surprising even the folks at MaineHousing, who know too well how unaffordable housing is, particularly for those residents with the lowest incomes.
It’s not just Maine. Housing is unaffordable nearly everywhere, and several other states also have halted rental assistance after funding was depleted from high demand.
We wonder just how bad things would be without the emergency funding. We could find out — the rental assistance is one-time money from federal COVID relief. Once it’s gone, it’s likely that federal housing assistance will return to its past, insufficient levels.
The emergency funding will go away, but the emergency will remain.
That’s why it’s so important that Maine continue to accelerate housing development. Statewide, there is a shortage as high as 25,000 units, a number that has risen steadily and predictably for years as building failed to keep up with demand.
That has made it difficult for Mainers to find housing, and put those who do in dire financial straits and on the brink of homelessness.
In fact, it is housing unaffordability caused by a shortage of affordable units that is the top factor driving the homelessness problem statewide — not addiction or mental illness, though those do play a role.
Maine has started to turn that around. Helped by an affordable-housing tax credit passed by the Legislature and Gov. Mills, and by cities and towns excited to see housing built in their communities, there are now more housing units being built every year, and more coming in the pipeline. MaineHousing itself developed 520 affordable units in 2021, triple the number from 2019.
More will be made possible by the housing law passed last session, which starting in July 2023 will permit additional units wherever single-family housing is allowed.
The developments already underway include affordable housing for seniors funded by a $15 million bond approved years ago by Maine voters but held back by then-Gov. Paul LePage, who is facing Mills in the November election.
The funding, put in motion by Mills in one of her first acts in office, already is helping to provide safe, affordable housing to older Mainers throughout the state, a total of 200 new units. It also paid for weatherization on 100 existing homes owned by low-income seniors.
It could have done much more. In 2014, Mark Eves, then Democratic speaker of the Maine House, proposed a $65 million senior housing bond that would have built 1,000 units. At the time, LePage said, “I’m all in on that. I’m ready and waiting.”
But instead he helped torpedo the larger proposal, then refused to sign the $15 million bond approved by voters, putting off for years projects that could have helped build housing for hundreds of Mainers.
At the gubernatorial debate Tuesday, LePage offered only his usual tired excuse for refusing to issue the bonds. Then he said he wants to see Maine schools consolidated and the old buildings used for housing.
We wonder if we can trust him to be “all in on” that plan, too.