Lewiston housing advocates back proposal for new state rental assistance voucher program

in: LH News on: 03/05/2021

Craig Saddlemire, of the Raise-Op Housing Cooperative
Craig Saddlemire, coordinator of the Raise-Op Housing Cooperative, sits on a vacant parcel on the corner of Walnut and Howe streets Thursday, where Raise-Op hopes to develop one of two 9-unit apartment buildings. Buildings that used to stand on the lots were demolished in 2015 and 2016. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

source: Sun Journal • by: Steve Collins

Lewiston housing officials are among those asking the Legislature to help tenants with rental assistance.

A proposed state rental assistance program that would cost $8.5 million annually has strong support from housing advocates from Lewiston.

The bill before the Legislature’s Labor and Housing Committee would provide “immediate and long-term relief to tenants who are rent-burdened, homeless or facing homelessness, and to property owners who cannot collect the income they need to manage their buildings safely,” said Craig Saddlemire, manager of a small housing organization called the Raise-Op Housing Cooperative in Lewiston.

The bill, sponsored by Democratic state Rep. Victoria Morales of South Portland, calls for creation of a rental assistance program with fewer restrictions than federal vouchers as well as a rental voucher guarantee to help with damage mitigation and repairs of apartments and new housing navigators to lend a hand to tenants.

It would also bar landlords receiving funds from the program to use a credit score or rental history to block prospective tenants.

State Rep. Laurie Osher, a Democrat from Orono, said the money would help as many as 1,000 Mainers to have their housing needs met.

“Providing vouchers and assistance for affordable housing is a simple matter of justice, she said.

Morales said there are 25,000 households waiting for as long as seven years to receive federal Section 8 housing vouchers that help them pay for apartments in Maine.

“So many families are waiting, in limbo, for the limited housing support available in Maine, unable to have dreams yet alone achieve dreams,” she told the committee.

Travis Heynen, deputy executive director at Lewiston Housing, the municipal housing authority serving Lewiston and four nearby towns, said it has 556 people on its rental housing waiting list who may be languishing for up to six years. Another 754 people are on a housing voucher waiting list with an average wait time of a year, he said.

While they wait, he said, “they are often living in unsafe homes, extremely rent-burdened, or are unhoused and living on the streets, vehicles, or condemned buildings.”

Brendan Akers, a Lewiston resident who got housing help in the past, told the legislative panel that “right now, there are wind chills below zero degrees, which is cold enough to kill someone who is homeless.”

“With COVID, usual places to get warm, like the library, are closed,” Aker said. Not having a safe place to live means it’s easier to get sick, and floating around people can spread COVID-19 or other infections. No one would leave their dogs or cats outside in this weather, why would we leave humans outside?”

Realtor Julia Basett Schwerin of Cape Elizabeth urged support for the measure’s reliance on leveraging public funds “to support the private sector, in this case owners of rental housing, to make available more rental housing by reducing the risk of tenant failure.”

She said it “addresses chronic issues in practical ways that I predict will stimulate the availability of more centrally located workforce housing, have significant economic returns and create a more just society.”

Lado Lodoka of the Portland-based Immigrant Housing Coalition said that Morales’ measure won’t add to the limited number of affordable housing units in the state, “but it will increase the pool of landlords who will participate in subsidized housing.”

Heynen said federal funding for rental assistance has been stagnant for years and isn’t keeping pace “with the critical need in our community.”

“In Lewiston, the market for safe rental housing is extremely tight, and it is difficult for people to find safe, affordable housing,” he said.

“People with housing assistance are met with an additional challenge of navigating complex housing guidelines and affordable housing programs,” Heynen said. “They are often passed by when someone without assistance applies.”

Saddlemire said the federal housing vouchers work well with the private market, but isn’t funded sufficiently and contains some restrictions that limit access.

“I see firsthand many people living hand to mouth, paying everything they have to live in unsafe housing, where relationships with landlords can be contentious or exploitative,” he said. “The effects on these families are crippling, impacting their health, their ability to save money to improve their lives, and their sense of agency.”

In every case, Saddlemire told lawmakers, the families involved “are low-income, and most often people of color.”

Mufalo Chitam, executive director of the Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, said passing the bill would help support the economic and social integration of New Mainers.

Saddlemire said that in addition to helping tenants, the measure would help landlords who “need to collect a reasonable amount of income to operate their properties.”

He said landlords range from “those who want to do the right thing for their tenants, and those who are only concerned about money and will evict without hesitating for late rent.”

The fundamental problem is that many Mainers don’t earn enough money to cover their housing expenses. He said the average wage required to afford a one-bedroom apartment in Maine last year was $15.64 an hour for a full-time, more than many essential workers can pull in.

“These are people who are forced to choose between paying rent over school tuition, medical bills, car repair and food,” Saddlemire said, adding that “just because some people pay rent on time, this does not mean it comes without major sacrifice.”

“And for those who do not pay rent on time, eviction can be a permanently damaging event, often leading to unsafe shelter, exploitative relationships, addiction, and even death,” he said.

Saddlemire said that “a reliable and fully funded voucher program can greatly reduce evictions and the rate of people who are unhoused, and at a much lower cost to the public than supporting people after they lose their housing through emergency room visits and first responder services.”

“Housing is a human right,” he said, “and COVID has helped to illuminate the fact that housing is also health care. It is in the interest of our public health, and economic health, that our workers, our vets, our elderly, our children, remain safely and reliably housed at all times, through pandemics and economic booms alike.”

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