Jun. 24—Rent has become unaffordable for nearly half of all Maine tenants, according to new data from Harvard University.
A study published Wednesday by the university's Joint Center for Housing Studies indicates that 41.1 percent of tenants in the state are cost-burdened by rent, with almost 20 percent being "severely" cost-burdened.
To be considered cost-burdened, a tenant must be spending more than 30 percent of their gross income on housing.
"Maine is experiencing a problem that's a national problem in nature," said Erik Jorgensen, senior director of government relations and communications for the Maine State Housing Authority. "We're seeing our part of this national problem, and it's something that's been getting steadily worse."
The data put forward by Harvard highlights a number of alarming trends for America's renters. While data regarding the cost-burden analysis was collected in 2020, more recent data collected in February reveals that nationwide, rents have gone up nearly 12 percent in the past year.
The difficulty in paying rent is especially felt by the residents of Portland, which ranks as one of the most expensive housing markets in Cumberland County. According to data from MaineHousing, 71.1 percent of Portland renters cannot afford a two-bedroom apartment, a 12-percentage point increase from 2017. The median income in Portland in 2020 was $45,343 — nearly $30,000 less than the $75,197 needed to live in a city where the median rent is $1,880.
Affordable housing is most commonly defined as any rental property in which tenants aren't paying more than 30 percent of their gross income toward rent and utilities. According to a 2022 report released by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, around 58 percent of extremely low-income renters are severely cost-burdened in Maine.
"Housing is sort of like a big ecosystem — you need to have affordable housing at different levels to make it work," Jorgensen said.
Maine Housing estimates that the state is currently 20,000 to 25,000 units short of what it needs to end the affordable housing shortage.
"You know, you can build a lot of affordable housing, but you also need workforce housing, and you need all these different levels, to make things work," Jorgensen said.
He attributes this shortage to a number of factors that are both national in nature and unique to Maine. The state's aging population, workforce shortages and supply chain issues are barriers to constructing more affordable housing. Also, financial incentives are few and far between.
"The problem with affordable housing — the problem with any kind of construction — is if you can't build it at an affordable cost, you can't really charge affordable rents," Jorgensen said.
'WE NEED MORE SUPPLY'
Although affordable housing projects are difficult to construct, there are a number of nonprofits in Maine working to provide affordable housing to low-income Mainers. On Wednesday, the nonprofit Avesta Housing unveiled its new, 75-unit Deering Place development.
The building features 40 affordable and 35 market-rate units ranging in price from $850 to $1,250. Of the 35 market-rate units, a number are being subsidized through government housing vouchers.
"The hope is that the creation of Deering Place has improved (residents') lives in meaningful ways," Jonathan Culley, the chairman of the Avesta board of directors, said at a grand opening ceremony. "Avesta Housing is guided by the premise that everyone deserves a place to call home, and we're all thrilled that residents living here have a safe, affordable home."
Jorgensen believes that these kinds of housing projects can have a tangible impact on keeping renters from leaving both Portland and Maine more broadly. However, he recognizes that construction needs to keep up with demand.
"It's really hard for a lower-income person in a city like Portland, but Avesta is a model developer," Jorgensen said. "(Deering Place) definitely is helping to keep families here, but we need more supply. That's what it comes down to."
Dana Totman, president and CEO of Avesta, agreed with Jorgensen's sentiment, believing more construction is fundamental to fixing the affordable housing crisis in Maine. Deering Place received 700 lease applications for the 75 available units.
"We just need to keep building, building and building, because fundamentally, we don't have enough ... we need 20,000 more affordable rental units in the state, and the only way we're going to get there is one project at a time, project by project," Totman said.
BUILDING A PATHWAY OUT OF POVERTY
Totman and Jorgensen believe that the construction of these new housing projects will help to alleviate poverty, since homes provide a stable basis on which people can build their lives.
"If you're poor, one of the major reasons you are poor is the cost of housing. If your housing is inadequate, you're probably poor," Totman said. "So, they're inseparable."
"If you have a safe, dry and warm place to live, then other problems in your life can be solved," Jorgensen said. "Without a place to live, everything else is not going to be settled."
For those living in affordable housing, the ability to rent can provide a life-changing opportunity. Lucas Bonica was one of the lucky few to receive a lease at Deering Place.
"It's just been such a good opportunity to find a place that'll actually make me feel like I actually get to live a life alone," Bonica said at the ceremony. "Thank you for creating such a good place and a good time for me to change as a human."
Despite the current situation, Jorgensen remains hopeful for a brighter future for Maine's renters, even though the solution might not come soon.
"You've got to remain hopeful ... unfortunately, housing problems aren't things you can solve overnight — they take awhile to come through and happen," he said.
Staff Writer Gillian Graham contributed to this report.