A group of Mainers who have experienced homelessness and housing discrimination joined with advocates at the State House on Thursday to call on lawmakers to use federal and state dollars to address a deepening housing crisis.
“I’ve been told by numerous different landlords that they don’t take housing vouchers. I don’t have renting experience for the reason that they won’t give me a chance,” one speaker, Leanna, said during a press conference. “It made me feel disgusted with myself. I felt like I was worthless.”
The housing advocates are upping their public pressure as the legislative session is now in its final stretch, with lawmakers beginning to vote on bills on the floor of the Maine House and Senate and draft a budget. Activists are urging lawmakers to pass and fund a slate of bills that will protect tenants from eviction, connect low-income people with rental assistance and build new affordable housing.
The group was joined by state Rep. Victoria Morales (D-South Portland), who is the sponsor of one of the bills highlighted by the housing advocates Thursday, a measure that would lay the groundwork for a long-term rental assistance program and establish a network of housing counselors to help people find and keep stable housing.
“We are in probably the worst housing crisis we’ve ever seen in the state of Maine,” Morales said. “COVID-19 has shown us how bad it really is, but we’ve been in it for many, many years.”
The housing advocates are also supporting legislation that would prohibit housing discrimination based on a person’s source of income, a bill that would establish an eviction mediation program, measures that would increase funds for emergency and youth shelters and a $100 million proposal to build 1,200 energy-efficient affordable housing units with fair labor standards.
While Maine has had a longstanding shortage of affordable housing options, the state’s current real estate boom is placing housing even further out of reach for low-income residents. Mainers, on average, need an annual income of $42,489 to pay for a two-bedroom home, but a typical low-income renter makes only $35,098. Many make far less, explained Kate Brennan of Maine Equal Justice, one of the organizers of the rally.
“Everyone has a right to shelter,” she said. “Unfortunately, Black and brown people in Maine are far more likely to face eviction and homelessness. This cannot stand. It holds us all back from achieving housing as a human right.”
Twenty-six percent of Maine’s homeless population is Black or African American, despite making up only 1% of the state’s population. Pine Tree Legal, a firm that provides legal assistance to low-income Mainers, reports that 12% of households they represented in legal court between 2017 and 2019 were non-white and nearly 50% were disabled.
Rental assistance is hamstrung by underfunding and the lack of housing stock. The Maine Housing Authority reports that there is a backlog of 25,000 people waiting to be granted Section 8 vouchers.
And even for people who obtain housing vouchers, the speakers explained, finding an affordable home can still be difficult because rent can sometimes exceed what Section 8 will pay for and some landlords refuse to rent to voucher holders.
On top of these long-standing issues, housing advocates are fearful there may be an impending wave of evictions coming if federal eviction protections are loosened.
Stephanie Chase, a resident of Lewiston, has faced eviction multiple times and says it’s created permanent anxiety in her children.
“My son would ask me, ‘Mom, are we going to move again? Are we going to move again?’” she said. “It took a long time to convince him, no, we won’t be moving.”
During the rally at the State House, the housing advocates held signs that said housing is health care. Some also told stories about how housing is fundamental to social mobility.
“Five years ago, when I moved to Maine, I moved to a homeless shelter. I had no housing, I had nothing,” said Flavia Oliveira of Waterville. “Only after I secured housing was I able to go back to school. I got an associate’s degree. I went back and got a bachelor’s degree.”
Morales added, “Without safe and affordable homes, there can be no access to the benefits of health care, to the benefits of education and treatment, to the benefits of job opportunities and training. Without safe and affordable housing, none of that is possible.”
Top photo: A woman who has experienced housing insecurity speaks at a rally at the State House on Thursday. | Beacon