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Housing advocates call for urgent rent relief in budget as tenant protections falter


Housing advocates call for urgent rent relief in budget as tenant protections falter

Jun 08, 2023 | 3:59 pm ET
By Evan Popp
Housing advocates call for urgent rent relief in budget as tenants protections falter
"Nobody needs a mansion. Everybody needs a home" read a sign at a rally outside the Maine State Capitol on June 1, 2023. | Beacon

Addressing the state’s affordable housing crisis is a frequently named top priority of Maine lawmakers and Democrats in particular. However, advocates are arguing that to truly begin to improve the dire situation many tenants face, lawmakers must include rent relief in the state budget, especially as multiple other protections for tenants have failed this session. 

The state’s crisis has shown no signs of abating, with people facing skyrocketing rental and housing costs, an increasing number of evictions and a lack of sufficient emergency assistance. In addition, there are around 15,000 people on waitlists for housing vouchers, 40% of Maine renters are considered cost-burdened, and there is a statewide shortage of about 20,000 affordable housing units. 

To start addressing that situation, the legislature set up a special housing-focused committee and lawmakers introduced a slate of bills they hoped would help alleviate the crises. 

One such bill is LD 1710, sponsored by Rep. Cheryl Golek (D-Harpswell). As originally proposed, the measure would allocate $75.5 million in 2023-24 and $75.5 million more in 2024-25 to addressing the housing crisis — the kind of investment proponents believe is necessary given the scope of the problem. A key aspect of the legislation is that it would provide rental assistance for low-income families by establishing a state-run housing voucher program, which would have the effect of clearing current lengthy waitlists for Section 8 vouchers. The measure would also improve legal protections for tenants.  

The bill spurred a groundswell of support from renters and housing advocates and fierce opposition from landlords and their allies during a public hearing last month. 

The Housing Committee ultimately decided to carry the bill over to the next session to continue working on the issue.

However, given the urgent need for aid now, advocates and progressive lawmakers are calling for rental assistance funding to be included in the upcoming state budget. 

“LD 1710 is the only bill that has been presented that would provide help for … very low-income renters,” Golek said, referring to tenants who make around 30% of the annual median income (around $21,000 ​​​​​a year for a family of three). “We have let this population of Mainers fall through the cracks for far too long, and it is past time they receive needed assistance and a solid ladder to climb up.”

Andrea Steward, a housing policy advocate for Maine Equal Justice (MEJ), echoed that argument, emphasizing the severity of the problem. 

“This is truly urgent,” Steward said. “Eviction dockets at Maine courthouses are setting records. Rent prices keep going up while more and more renters become extremely cost burdened.”

In its press release earlier this week urging lawmakers to include rent relief funding in the budget, Maine Equal Justice argued that many tenants simply can’t afford to wait until next session when lawmakers will take up LD 1710 again. 

Legislative leaders and the governor are currently negotiating what the next iteration of the state budget will contain, with advocates like MEJ and the Maine People’s Alliance (of which Beacon is a project) pushing for funds for housing, a child tax credit to help low-income families, the inclusion of low-income immigrants in MaineCare, and establishing a paid family and medical leave program in Maine, among other priorities. 

Housing advocates call for urgent rent relief in budget as tenant protections falter
Activists with Housing Justice Maine call on state lawmakers in 2021 to create affordable housing. | Beacon

Key in those negotiations are members of the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee, who have voting power over bills that require state funding. Advocates with MEJ are asking that committee specifically to fund rent vouchers within the budget that could help thousands of Mainers stay in their homes, noting that such assistance would be a “natural complement to housing solutions like new construction of affordable units that serve Mainers with higher incomes, and the ‘housing first’ model for those who experience chronic homelessness.”

Democrats hold a governing trifecta, with Gov. Janet Mills sitting in the Blaine House and Democratic majorities in both chambers of the legislature and on every committee. That means the party will ultimately hold significant sway over whether priorities such as rental assistance get included in the budget.

Including that aid is especially important to advocates, as MEJ noted that there is a “deep frustration with Augusta’s proposed solutions to the housing crisis so far this year” among movement leaders.

Part of that frustration likely stems from committee votes in which Democratic-led panels have either nixed or watered down several housing and tenants’ rights reforms. 

While activists have praised Mills’ proposal of over $90 million to help with housing needs and are strongly backing a measure that appears likely to pass that would encourage the development of a “housing first” approach to address chronic homelessness, some other priority bills haven’t been as well received.

For example, the Judiciary Committee in April voted against several tenants’ rights bills that advocates argued were important to protecting renters. That came amid stringent opposition to the measures from real estate interests and landlords.

One bill voted down would have barred landlords from asking people about previous evictions or from using a potential tenant’s eviction history as a basis for denial of housing. Another would have increased the required notice to terminate an at-will tenant to 90 days from 30 days. The bill to prohibit eviction-based discrimination is now dead, while the increased notice measure likely faces an uphill battle in the House and Senate because of the vote against it in committee. 

And while the committee advanced a series of other tenants rights bills, it approved versions of the measures that were — in some cases — significantly reduced in scope

Furthermore, the Judiciary Committee last month unanimously opposed a bill that would have stabilized rent prices and provided more protections for tenants, dooming the legislation. And another housing reform measure to create a statewide landlord registry to centralize information about the property owners and business interests that control the rental market in Maine has been voted down by the Housing Committee and is also dead. 

Some other important bills — such as legislation to have Maine create publicly-owned housing that tenants themselves would manage and a measure to prohibit landlords from considering an applicant’s criminal history before looking at other factors — are being carried over to the next session of the legislature.

Legislative panels have approved some important housing bills this year. For example, in May, the Housing Committee advanced LD 226, a bill to invest in affordable housing construction. The original bill, however, proposed allocating $200 million from the state’s general fund through fiscal year 2025. The version passed by the committee changes that funding to $200 million for affordable housing over the next five years, adding up to $40 million per year, according to a press release from the House Democratic Office. That measure still faces additional votes in the House and Senate.

In addition, the Housing Committee advanced a less expansive bill, LD 1540, that would provide people below a certain income with temporary rental assistance. 

But given the seriousness of the current situation, Belinda Vemba, a member of the Housing Leadership Team at Maine Equal Justice, said it’s apparent that more must be accomplished.

“We did our best to fight for everyone but there is more work to be done,” Vemba said. “We’re not giving up.”