Apr. 27—AUGUSTA — Advocates for affordable housing, the homeless and those in recovery or seeking treatment for substance use disorders are rallying behind bills to ease long-standing housing shortages in Maine that have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The bills, which were highlighted in a news conference at the State House on Tuesday, cover a range of issues and touch on everything from new eviction protections for tenants to funding for homeless shelters to vacancy fees for vacation property owners who leave their houses empty for most of the year.
Other measures would boost funding for a nonprofit organization that provides legal services to tenants facing eviction and would require a mediation process for most eviction cases.
"Demand for housing is at record levels and we are in short supply," Rep. Chris Kessler, D-South Portland, said. Kessler has sponsored a bill that would use fees imposed on wealthy property owners who own vacation homes or operate short-term rentals to help create more affordable housing.
He said that for the last five years in a row the majority of Maine households could not afford the median price for a home in Maine, and for 20 years a majority of households could not afford the median rent for a two-bedroom apartment.
"Families who have lived in communities for generations are being forced out, because they can't bid as high as somebody from the big cities," Kessler said. "For those Mainers who do own homes and are barely getting by, the frenzy for housing is forcing increases to their property taxes that they won't be able to pay."
On Wednesday the Legislature is also expected to vote on a joint resolution acknowledging the housing crisis in Maine while committing the lawmakers and Gov. Janet Mills to do something about it.
The resolution spells out the depth of the problem, noting that 30,00o residents are already on waiting lists for just 14,000 affordable housing units, while the state is only adding about 250 new affordable housing units each year. Among other facts, the resolution also notes that one in five Maine homes is considered vacant by the U.S. Census Bureau, the largest vacancy rate for any state in the U.S.
Several central and southern Maine lawmakers including Kessler, Reps. Victoria Morales, D-South Portland; Kristen Cloutier, D-Lewiston; Traci Gere, D-Kennebunkport; Melanie Sachs, D-Freeport; and Sen. Anne Carney, D-Cape Elizabeth, all spoke in support of the bills, which they have sponsored and co-sponsored.
During the news conference, Kathy Rondone, 77, an Augusta resident, said her own story of near homelessness could be the story of many Mainers. She said she was asking Mills and the Legislature to take "significant action" to address the state's housing crisis.
Rondone said her husband was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease as the couple began fixing up their retirement home, and he ended up in long-term care. She was left without heat or hot water and eventually in foreclosure.
"Life can change in an instant," Rondone said. "You never know when all your hopes and dreams and plans will suddenly vanish." She said losing the home in foreclosure at 71 made it even harder for her to find an apartment with a black mark in her credit report.
"After more than three years on the waiting list, I'm in an affordable subsidized unit that meets my needs," Rondone said.
"And we are all just one illness, one death of a spouse, one lost job away from facing foreclosure, eviction or even homelessness."
Opponents who represent different associations of landlords in Maine testified against bills that expanded eviction protections for tenants or make permanent some of the eviction protections adopted during the pandemic.
Samuel Sherry, an attorney with the Southern Maine Landlord Association, said his organization was opposed to parts of a bill that would require non-judicial mediation on all eviction cases and earmark $1 million to provide greater access to legal help for low-income Mainers facing eviction.
Sherry said his organization was not against mediation or providing legal help to the poor but that many people, even when offered free legal help, turn it down.
"We are not opposed to more funding," Sherry said. "We just don't cotton to random funding."
Nan Heald, the executive director of Pine Tree Legal, a nonprofit that provides free legal help to eligible tenants, said her organization has been helping the poor in Maine since 1967.
"But we have never had enough legal aid resources to respond to the demand for help in this area," Heald said.
"Most of the general funding for eviction work has declined or not kept pace with inflation," she said. "Our staff are haunted by the people that we have to turn away, especially when we know that representation can change the outcome of that case."
A legislative committee will debate and vote on the bills in future work sessions before recommending passage or rejection to the full Legislature.