By Ulya Aligulova | Photos by Good Shepherd Food Bank of Maine, Joshua Langlais
Maine’s affordable housing shortage is a well-documented, full blown crisis. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, a nonprofit organization dedicated to ending America’s affordable housing crisis, Maine needs over 19,000 units to fill the gap between need and availability. The coalition reports that a minimum wage worker can’t afford a two-bedroom apartment in any state in the U.S., and names Maine as one of the 10 states with the largest shortfall between average renter wage and two-bedroom housing cost. According to Bangor Daily News, a worker would need to earn $18.73 per hour to be able to afford a two-bedroom apartment in Maine, and fewer than 30% of renters in the state make enough money to afford that rent.
Daniel Brennan is director of Maine State Housing Authority, an independent authority created by the Maine Legislature in 1969 to expand affordable housing options for low-income Mainers. Brennan spoke about some historical reasons for the housing shortage: “The federal government in the 1970s and into the 1980s invested a lot of money throughout the country on the development of affordable housing for individuals who were at 30% of the median income or below. That was the Section 8 program,” he said.
“That initiative provided much of the financing to build hundreds of apartment buildings around Maine, as well as rental assistance.” But that program was replaced in 1986 by the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit, a different low-income housing model. “Although it’s a great program, it doesn’t produce at the same rate as the previous program,” said Brennan. “I think the tools have changed on us, and we’re able to build fewer and fewer houses. And as economic crises hit, the available funds to produce the housing through the tax credit program got constrained, and really hampered the ability to create new homes at the level that was being demanded.”
Recently, partly as a result of the pandemic and because more people now work remotely than ever before, well-off people have been moving to Maine from other states at a level not seen in many years. Maine is seen as an attractive, safe location and, for some people from other states, Maine’s housing is considered relatively low-cost. As a result, the average price of a home in the state has increased from a little over $200,000 to $300,000 in less than two years. And the available inventory has severely shrunk.
“This has caused a huge dampening effect on first-time home buyers in Maine. And a lot of these people are in historically disadvantaged communities. They’re looking to take that step in home ownership because that’s how equity and wealth is built in this country,” said Brennan. About 70% of people in Maine own their homes, but the figure is only 30% in the Black community. “We’ve got to work on the inventory problem and come up with creative ways to offer mortgages to people who can’t break through this market.”
Brennan is beginning to see things turn around. In 2021, Maine Housing created 524 affordable units and over 1,600 more units currently are in the development pipeline. The majority of these are in Bangor and the southern part of the state around the greater Portland, Lewiston, Biddeford, and Augusta regions.
“We completed a record number of over 500 units last year, which we haven’t done since the ’70s,” he added. “The goal we’re shooting for is to get to 1,000 units a year. Gov. [Janet] Mills has invested $50 million from the Maine Jobs and Recovery Plan into Maine housing. At the same time, municipalities and counties are getting American Rescue Plan funds from the federal government directly.”
At the same time that the housing stock in Maine has diminished, the numbers of asylum seekers arriving has increased. The numbers were highest in the second half of 2021, with 68 families arriving in December, a total of 222 individuals. Asylum seekers generally arrive in Portland – that’s where the buses go, and it’s the city that hosts the largest number of immigrants in Maine.
“The City of Portland has one family shelter and one singles shelter, the only municipality-run shelters in the city, and both are at capacity,” said Kristen Dow, the City of Portland’s Director of Health and Human Services . “Between the two shelters, they house nearly 1,200 people a night,” not all of whom are asylum seekers. “The City has started utilizing hotels to house the incoming asylum seekers, and we currently occupy 10 different hotels across 5 municipalities – Portland, South Portland, Old Orchard Beach, Westbrook, and Freeport – over 600 people in total.”
Dow explained that the hotel stays are billed through the General Assistance (GA) program, which reimburses around 70% of the housing costs, while the other 30% is reimbursed through Federal Emergency Management Agency funds that have been used by the City throughout the pandemic. “Families stay in these hotels for an average of five months before moving to family shelters, where they remain for about another four months until they find permanent housing. The biggest challenge we’re facing is the sheer volume of people,” Dow said.
Resources for helping the asylum seekers are limited. Chelsea Hoskins, Resettlement Coordinator at the City of Portland, along with immigrant-led nonprofits, grassroots organizations, and volunteers – including some from outside southern Maine – have been trying to help the newcomers meet their basic needs.
“There’s a Refugee Resettlement Program that’s very structured, and helps those with refugee status, but that’s not the case for asylum seekers. So once they’re here, they have little access to resources, such as legal assistance, medical care, food assistance, housing assistance. On top of that, they’re not allowed to work for a year after they’ve filed their paperwork. Both the City staff and community partners are spread thin. But it’s important to remember that these families are allowed to cross the border into this country legally. However, then they’re given no access to resources,” said Dow.
Hoskins said that most asylum seekers who have come to Maine in the past few years are from Africa. “For the most part, people are coming from Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria – and Haiti. A lot of the families have told us that they’ve been on this journey for months, sometimes years.”
Charlie Gauvin, Director of Outreach and Education at Catholic Charities Maine Refugee and Immigration Services, spoke of the disparity in services and support available to those who come to the U.S. as asylum seekers, versus those with refugee status, or with humanitarian parole visas. “We get federal contracts to help resettle refugees, and people already granted asylee status, secondary refugees, and Cuban and Haitian entrants, and more recently Afghan parolees. But the general, asylum-seeking population, those from Central and Southern Africa, Central and Southern America, we’re not able to serve with the federal contracts that we have.”
Families stay in motels for so long because they have no resources to afford market-rate housing, and there is very little housing stock that falls within the GA pricing guidelines in southern Maine. However, with so many families staying in motels, there’s concern about what will happen once summer arrives and tourists flock to Maine, looking for lodging. The question is whether the asylum seekers will need to leave the motels, or not.
A few hotels have said they want to keep supporting the families, help the community at large, and keep accepting GA payments as long as families need them, Hoskins said. “But there are no guarantees, since there are no contracts in place with these motels. As long as they continue to accept GA, we’ll continue working with them. But it’s definitely something that’s at the forefront of most people’s minds … but there’s only so much housing in the greater Portland area, and a lot that’s available will never be within the GA guidelines.”
Organizations like the Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition and Maine Equal Justice do advocacy related to the housing issue and are vocal about the need for more state support. Advocates wonder why the Mills administration is not putting more state resources into helping meet the needs of the asylum seekers, and instead is leaving volunteers, nonprofits, and grassroots organizations to shoulder so much of the work. And they suggest that the families who are moving to Maine should be seen as an asset for the state – once they receive work permits, asylum seekers can play a huge role in solving Maine’s workforce problem.
Hoskins agreed with Gauvin on the need to think beyond the greater Portland area for housing.
“We could do with more support stretching out to other municipalities that maybe have more bandwidth. We have some good partnerships in surrounding towns, but that could be expanded so we can support families in other areas of the state who will need that workforce when our new arrivals are eligible to work. Congresswoman [Chellie] Pingree is proposing legislation that would expedite work authorization for asylum seekers. The newcomers don’t want to rely on benefits. Many of them come here with degrees and a big work background. We’re not giving them the option to work quickly enough to become independent and fill the roles in our workforce.”
Martha Stein’s position as executive director of the non-profit Hope Acts gives her a wide-angled view of the needs of asylum seekers in relation to housing. Hope Acts is based in Portland and houses asylum seekers at Hope House, but also provides services for all immigrants – English classes, help with documents, and help accessing services such as housing search assistance, among others.
“A large number of our English students are currently staying in hotels. There are way more people looking for housing than we can possibly find houses for. As more people have moved to Maine throughout the pandemic, the cost of housing has skyrocketed. And now most landlords can’t or won’t accept the rate GA will pay to cover rent,” Stein said.
Hoskins, Stein, and other advocates pointed to Project HOME, run by the Quality Housing Coalition, Greater Portland Family Promise, and the staff at family shelters as important allies in the search for permanent housing solutions for asylum seekers currently in motels.
“Project HOME has been fantastic. Rep. Victoria Morales, the coalition’s Executive Director, has been working to develop landlord partnerships that will work with families,” Hoskins said. “Project HOME has almost doubled their amount of housing placements from 2020 to 2021. Additionally, Greater Portland Family Promise helps get referrals for families. They do case management and housing searches, among other things. And we have staff at family shelters that have developed great relationships with landlord who are already familiar with the GA process. Fortunately, when those landlords get a vacancy, they reach out.”
Last year, Hope Acts and Project HOME together hired a housing coordinator. “He works with both us and the Quality Housing Coalition,” Stein said. “In that way, we have a strong, symbiotic relationship. We also have a housing mentor who works with our clients. We’re in this moment where we need to be very creative. For example, we should be looking at empty malls and school buildings, and figuring out if there are ways to convert these to housing units, rather than only talking about building something new.”