I believe that adequate and safe housing is a basic human right – a right that should not be violated or denied to anyone because of their color or caste. However, as with many of our basic human rights, society has tested its limits.
The affordable housing crisis in Maine has proven to be urgent and pervasive. No matter where in the state we live in, we cannot deny that there is simply not enough housing supply to meet the demand. The prices of existing homes continue to rise dramatically. The Maine Affordable Housing Coalition estimates that there is a shortage of approximately 20,000 affordable rental units with an average of only 230 new units built each year.
To add insult to injury, there are over 25,000 Mainers on the waiting list for rental assistance. This dynamic creates a vicious cycle where potential buyers who cannot afford a property in this seller’s market are pushed back into a short rental market.
This problem is personal. Every week, I hear from people in my community directly affected by this crisis. Whether their careers took a turn during the pandemic and they lost access to housing, or their minimum wage job does not allow them to afford the few available housing, the feeling of hopelessness that I have hear in their voice breaks my heart.
Fortunately, the Legislative Assembly is committed to doing everything possible to deal with this crisis and find solutions as soon as possible. My goal as a legislator has always been to to create a fair and just public policy that recognizes the dignity and worth of every human personality and brings us to a place where all people in Maine have the social and economic opportunity to be free. Working with my colleagues to solve the affordable housing crisis allows me to continue to achieve this goal while addressing one of the most vital issues of our time.
The National Low Income Housing Coalition identified 41,454 households in Maine as being very low income. In other words, 27% of renter households fall into this category. Fifty-eight percent of these extremely low-income households spend more than 30% of their income on shelter costs. This is unacceptable. Since 2012, median house price grew faster than median incomes. It is unbearable. In order to close these gaps, we need to take swift action to update our housing stock and ensure that we have enough affordable units to meet demand. This crisis affects everyone, and it is high time we took decisive action to raise the bar, lest we see more people living on the streets across the state.
These glaring flaws in our system are not the only practices that undermine our right to housing. For decades across the country we have seen exclusionary zoning practices made for keep communities separate and wealthy. Whether it’s through minimum lot sizes or outrage at the construction of new affordable housing, we must take bold and decisive action quickly to break the grip of these practices on our communities. The system in place just doesn’t work for everyone, and it remains our moral imperative to ensure that all Mainers can stay in their communities without losing their shirts.
Lawmakers from all walks of life recognize this need. That’s why House Speaker Ryan Fecteau sponsored emergency legislation this session to create the Commission to Increase Housing Opportunities in Maine by Studying Zoning and Land Use Restrictions, whom I am honored to serve alongside him as Speaker of the Senate.
At the end of the committee’s work, we will make some bold recommendations to the Standing Joint Committee on Labor and Housing, which I also have the honor to chair. We believe these recommendations will best protect the basic human right to safe and affordable housing for all people in Maine. In our last three meetings, we’ll continue to look at the data on our housing crisis in Maine, the laws governing local housing regulation, and we’ll look to other states and their programs for advice on how whose housing shortage we can tackle by reforming zoning and land. restrictions on use. We will also consider measures that would encourage a much needed increase in housing options in the state. We will examine and consider the historical role of race and racism in zoning policies, and the best measures to ensure that state and municipal zoning laws do not constitute obstacles to racial and economic equality.
In this place, we will continue our march towards freedom and justice for all.
Craig Hickman is a Democratic Senator from Winthrop.